Some Call it Radical, But I Call it the Gospel

The events of recent weeks have sparked a great deal of productive discussion and unhelpful diatribe. I have been both edified by the interest in this blog and the comments posted, emails sent and phone calls received, but I have also been saddened by the vitriol present in the less-than charitable remarks of some in the blogosphere, particularly by those who claim the title Christian. As I continue to reflect upon some of the pressing matters of the day, and in light of some of these recent conversations, I felt it necessary to clarify a few things that have continued to be a source of confusion or the focus of critique (both legitimate and nonsensical).

I think the most controversial theme that has emerged from the reflections and commentary offered here at DatingGod.org has been the subject of Christian nonviolence or pacifism. Because of the heated reaction my commentary has evoked, I feel it is worthwhile to explain a few things so as to have this matter clearly presented for anyone who is interested. This is only an introductory take on the subject, while the post itself is lengthy, there is much more to be said about this matter.

  1. Christian nonviolence (Pacifism) does not equal passivity. This might seem like an obvious statement (and if it does then you can skip ahead to the next point), but a surprising number of people, including some very bright friends and regular readers of this blog, appear to forget this disjunctive fact. Perhaps it is the alliteration of “pacifism” and “passivity” that makes the seeming linkage sensible, but the truth is they are antithetical terms. Pacifism by its very definition implies action: nonviolent action. A common definition of the term, devoid of the Christian qualifier, states: “the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means.”
  2. The “Just War Doctrine” is a Post-Constantinian Development. As anyone with an elementary knowledge of early Christian history knows well, prior to the Edict of Milan (313 CE) one is hard-pressed to find an authoritative Christian source that posits something resembling the so-called Just War Doctrine as it was inaugurated in the work of Augustine in the late Fourth Century and developed by scholastic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas centuries later. The concepts of Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello were not necessary categories when the authority of the State was not linked to the Church in the way that emerged during and after the Constantinian era. Prior to the Fourth Century, Christianity is most famously marked by peaceful resistance, which often resulted in martyrdom as opposed to violent resistance or defensive action. In the realm of the apologists and Fathers of the Church one thinks about the difference between the views on violence proffered by thinkers like Origen and Tertullian (pre-Constantine) and those thinkers like Ambrose and Augustine (post-Constantine).
  3. Vita Evangelica as Starting Point, Ecclesia as audience. Some folks have asked me about my starting point and aim in discussing the Christian imperative of nonviolence. Without getting into the details of scriptural exegesis, historical theology and Catholic moral teaching, suffice it to say that the model of Christian living presented in the Canon of Scripture — the normative source for Christian theology — provides unequivocal evidence for the inseparability of nonviolence and Gospel life (vita evangelica). Furthermore, as a Franciscan friar, I profess to “live the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,” according to the Rule of St. Francis of Assisi. Of the many examples of Christian holiness, Francis’s life, writings and instruction to his followers is clear in its prescription of nonviolence. With the Gospel at its core, the Franciscan tradition provides a prophetic example of Christian being-in-the-world which is always already committed to pacifism. As for the audience or aim of my discussion of this Christian imperative, it is not directed, as such, to everybody. I recognize that we live in a pluralistic society and increasingly globalized world. I am also the citizen of a nation that is a liberal democratic republic, committed in its law to protect the rights of all its citizens to practice their respective beliefs and refrain from establishing a state religion. I do not mean to suggest by my discussion of Christian nonviolence that the United States law necessarily or explicitly reflect my Christian (or more idiosyncratically Franciscan) beliefs. I aim to remind my fellow Christians, those Baptized into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, that we have a particular vocation to live in the world according to the Gospel, working to make it more peaceable in accord with Jesus Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God. It is from this starting point and with this aim that I offer my critique of governmental policies, the decisions or actions of the politicians that serve my good and the good of the nation, and the behavior of my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ — all this while also reminding myself of those same responsibilities and identity of one who dares to bear the name “Christian.” As a Franciscan friar, I am a consecrated member of a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church and by virtue of my profession of evangelical counsels, the habit that I wear, the title that I bear and those three initials after my name, I am de facto an ecclesial leader and pastoral minister in the Church. It is therefore my responsibility, among others, to teach this truth and preach this Word — whether we like to hear it or not, regardless of how difficult the challenge may be.
  4. Specious Arguments. There are two popular counterfactual arguments made by those who dislike the truth and challenge of Christian nonviolence. Regarding individual appropriation of Christian nonviolence, some ask, “What am I to do if an aggressor comes to murder/rape/abuse ___________ (me/partner/child/parent)?” The answer is not “nothing” as some seem to think a stance of Christian nonviolence would mandate (see point #1 above), but instead defensive action is a right, just not violent action. Even if one was to lose his or her life in defense of himself or herself or another, Christians don’t believe that death has the final word. Christians believe in eschatological hope and that death for the sake of another (“lay down one’s life for a friend” John 15: 13) is not the worst possible action one can commit. Killing or committing violence is certainly worse. The other specious argument often evoked is the “Hitler argument” or some invocation of World War II. The claim being that what is one to do in the face of such state perpetuated evil without recourse to violence? The answer is not easy, but the prohibition of the use of violence is clear. I recently referred to an article in the May 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine that addresses precisely this question of pacifism and WWII.
  5. No Naïve Illusions: The Challenge of Pragmatism. I may be young, but I’m neither an idiot (unless by idiot you mean idiota for Christ, in which case I welcome the descriptor) nor am I unaware of the very real challenge that the call to Christian nonviolence poses to all people in such a broken world. I know of many horrific instances of victimhood and abuse, war and violence. Each instance of violence and harm weighs heavily on my heart and my prayers are always for an end to such destruction and suffering. While Christian nonviolence might at first appear to be impotent in the face of such difficult realities of human suffering and violence, I think such a Gospel stance allows for women and men of good will to raise difficult questions about the subjective, objective and systemic forms of violence and injustice in our world. Instead of immediately resorting to retributive and vengeful violent action, perhaps we might be better off preventing the conditions for the possibility of violence in our world — we must work for peace.

I am under no illusion that this way of living in the world is easy. Jesus made it quite clear in his invitation to discipleship that in order to follow him one must carry his or her cross daily (Luke 14:27). Additionally, Jesus Christ — whom Christians believe is the Son of God, fully Divine — spent his entire mission preaching peace, justice, nonviolence, unconditional forgiveness, healing and acceptance, and in the end his proclamation of the Kingdom contained in those words and deeds was met with execution. Should we expect anything less?

Some call my stance on Christian nonviolence radical, but I simply call it “The Gospel.”

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5 Responses to “Some Call it Radical, But I Call it the Gospel”

  1. I guess I have to go back and read some of the reactions to your “radical” thinking. I believe that your captured the spirit of St. Francis and the message of Jesus in your blogs over the past 10 days or so. I now guess that I should have expressed my support sooner.
    Bill

  2. [...] primer on Christian [...]

  3. Last night I was up late doing some work and caught a bit of the Jimmy Kimmel show. I never watch that show. Anyways, he showed a video clip of a confrontation between a man dressed in a batman costume and somebody making fun of his attire. The clip was real–not staged. I was sickened by the laughter and applause of the audience, as well as the way this horrendous violence was being presented as comedy material. Kimmel made a remark about the person dressed as batman needing a bat-ambulance. I find this de-sensitivity towards violence to be a modern atrocity.

  4. It seems to me that there are two elements in violence. The first is the use of some force, which in itself can build up or tear down. The second is the desire to injure or destroy which is objectionable, especially when it’s directed at someone. What confuses the issue is when violence creeps into proported non-violence by withholding the force (physical) and injecting the injury (emotional or psychological). So sarcasm, belittling, judgmentalism, intellectual snobery, elitism, etc all find there way into our interactions and poison the air. Francis gave us a antidote in beginning each encounter with ‘May the Lord give you peace’ and departing with ‘Peace and all good.’

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