Archive for the ‘Non-violence’ Category
“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:
How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.
Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at catholicmoraltheology.com. In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:
It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.
This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).
Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:
Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):
“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”
For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,
because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”
Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).
I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.
I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:
If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.
Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:
On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).
It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:
I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .
In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.
Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.
Twenty two days after Colonel Qaddafi fired on protesters in Libya, we are now in the middle of war. Well, not of war. We don’t use that term anymore. We are now in the middle of “military engagement,” which effectively means that the US-led coalition is launching cruise missiles over Libya. But a war by any other name is still a name.
Peter Nixon over at dotCommonweal is in agreement, in his post “War. Again.” “Make no mistake;” he writes, “This is not a humanitarian intervention. We are taking sides in a civil war.”
President Bush was justly criticized for his rush to war in Iraq and for not having a clear plan for what to do after we defeated Iraq’s armed forces. Bush’s pace, however, looks positively dilatory compared to the speed with which President Obama, with very little consultation with Congress or the American people, has committed the United States to yet another war to establish a government in a foreign country that is more to our liking.
And if the principle that governments cannot slaughter their citizens with impunity is to be the principle underlying our foreign policy, where are we off to next? Yemen, where army snipers killed 46 people yesterday? There is no shortage of tyrannies in the world. How much of our blood and treasure are we willing to expend to remake the world in our own image?
Historically, Christians have debated whether or not the demands of the Sermon on the Mount should lead the church to oppose all war, or whether some wars might be justified. For the majority of Christendom, the latter side has won. The first major theological justification for the morality of war goes back to Augustine who argues in his letter to Boniface that military engagement is an obligation of neighbor love, and in doing so, lays the foundation for just war theory:
Do not think that it is impossible for any one to please God while engaged in active military service. . . Think, then, of this first of all, when you are arming for the battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God. For, when faith is pledged, it is to be kept even with the enemy against whom the war is waged, how much more with the friend for whom the battle is fought! Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9 If, however, peace among men be so sweet as procuring temporal safety, how much sweeter is that peace with God which procures for men the eternal felicity of the angels! Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared (Epistle 189).
Following Augustine, Aquinas too treated just war under love or charity:
In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. . .
. . . Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. . .
. . . Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” (II-II, Q. 40, art. 1).
In addition to the criteria Aquinas lays out for going to war (ius ad bellum), namely, right authority, just cause, and just intent, just war theory also includes attention to the way the war is fought (ius in bello). In other words, the war ought to be proportional. It ought to use only enough force to respond to the threat at hand.
So it this “war” in Libya just? It does seem that the United States is at pains to guarantee that the authority initiating this military engagement is rightful. This is not a case of unilateral action or “coalitions of the willing,” as Ross Douthat points out:
In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.
And our cause does indeed seem just. Qadaffi is a pretty wicked guy, especially in recent weeks as he has unleached his troops on those who have risen in protest against his rule, killing many and threatening the country with further disasters. As the Chicago Tribune points out, Libya imports about 90% of its food and other basic necessities, and Qadaffi is likely to use food as a weapon, threatening starvation to those who do not comply.
But what about our intent? In order to determine the justice of our intent, we need to first know what it is, and that is not so easy. President Obama announced at a news conference in Chile this morning that military action in Libya has only a humanitarian intent, namely, stopping the killing of Libyan civilians by Col. Qaddafi’s soldiers. Nevertheless, “it is U.S. policy that Qadafi needs to go.” A recent NYTimes article addresses this point exactly: “Target in Libya is Clear; Intent is Not:”
But there is also the risk that Colonel Qaddafi may not be dislodged by air power alone. That leaves the question of whether the United States and its allies are committing enough resources to win the fight. The delay in starting the onslaught complicated the path toward its end. . . For Mr. Obama, who has explicitly said that Colonel Qaddafi has lost any right to govern, the conundrum is that the United Nations mandate does not authorize his removal. So Mr. Obama now says the goal is limited: to use force to protect the Libyan people and allow humanitarian aid to get through.
An intention is something more than a desire, in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. An intention (proaireton in Greek) is something deliberated upon, something chosen with reason. For Aquinas, intention is an act of the will which “tends toward the end,” but which presupposes an act of reason ordering something to the end (I-II, Q. 12, art. 1). Intention further includes the means to achieving this end: “the will is moved to the means for the sake of the end: and thus the movement of the will to the end and its movement to the means are one and the same thing. For when I say: “I wish to take medicine for the sake of health,” I signify no more than one movement of my will. And this is because the end is the reason for willing the means” (I-II, 12.4).
So in the case of Libya, for the intention to be just, both the means and the end in sight must be just. And there is a lot of question if this is the case in our current engagement. Douthat writes,
Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require. . . Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.
It seems to me that our intention in Libya has not been established. Qadaffi is a bad guy, and nobody wants him around, but our intention is not to remove him from power. Libyans who rose against Qadaffi are in a bad place right now, but our intention is not to protect them, at least not really, since protecting them would presumably mean a regime-change, and that isn’t our intention at the time. It is terrible to watch a guy like Qadaffi start a new reign of terror in North Africa, but just war principles are in place because war is such a tragic event that it need be only utilized as a last resort, and only with an eye toward guaranteeing a more just peace in the future. This “engagement” in Libya is neither a last resort, nor is the end in sight any better than what we have now: a dictator in control of a country.
I receive weekly emails from an organization called Consistent Life, which opposes all threats to life from war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Each email always includes a relevant “quote of the week.” This week’s came from David Gushee’s reflection on the recent Princeton abortion conference, hosted in part by my friend Charlie Camosy as part of his overall “magenta” campaign. Gushee notes,
“I claimed that abortion places on women the burdens of the sexual revolution’s ‘liberation.’ But as a man I totally and viscerally understand that the availability of abortion and the leverage a man has to demand it of ‘his’ lover enables us to exploit our access to women’s bodies without having to pay the ultimate price if it results in an unwanted pregnancy. The pro-choice side can talk about women’s moral agency all day long, but moral decision making happens in contexts of power. To the extent that a man has power or leverage in a relationship with a woman, he can affect or sometimes even direct her decision to have an abortion.”
Inspired by the quote and the source (Consistent Life is a nice antidote to those who claim that “pro-life” people stop caring about life after birth), I decided to post the quote on Facebook. A firestorm of comments ensued (up to 37 now), which for the most part, I have not responded to. In order to provide a more thoughtful response than Facebook will allow, this blog post will attempt to give a response (names changed to protect the innocent).
The reason I liked Gushee’s original quote is that it lines up very well with my own experience. I teach in an urban community college. In my ethics class, which I have taught about eight times now, I ask my students on the first day of class to write about an ethical dilemma they have faced, and how they went about resolving that dilemma. My students, who are over 90% women, overwhelmingly write about abortion. What is interesting is that they also tend to focus on the different social forces that were at work in their decision.
Most recently, a student approached me (after I chided for texting in class) and apologized, telling me that her best friend was pregnant and her father had threatened her with physical violence if she refused an abortion (which she did not want to have). The girl was financially dependent on the father, with no job of her own, and no support from the father of the child. “What am I supposed to do for my friend?” my student asked.
Another student wrote that she lived with her boyfriend who threatened to kick her out of his house if she did not get an abortion. My student wrote about choosing to get the abortion because she had no place else to go, and could not imagine life without her boyfriend. While she regrets the abortion, she does not, in retrospect, feel that she had any other choice.
Another student wrote about a similar situation, but rather than getting an abortion, she chose not to. The relationship ended, and she struggles now to get the father to provide any financial support for her child while she tries to get through nursing school in order to get a stable job and become financially independent. She lives with her parents now and does not regret her decision.
There are a dozen more anecdotes that I could share, similar to these. Gushee’s point is that it is fallacious to call these women “liberated.” They have suffered, and the men who share the responsibility of their pregnancies have not. In a sense, it is true that these women at least have more options available post-Roe, even if those options are not ideal. But from a Thomistic perspective, more “options” does not necessarily equate with more “freedom.”
I have distinguished between the “freedom for indifference” and the “freedom for excellence” on other blog posts, but briefly, Thomistic theologian Servais Pinckaers emphasized in drawing this distinction that “freedom” is something far richer than simply “options.” True freedom is the power to choose wisely as a matter of habit those actions conducive to ultimate happiness (eudaimonia). Freedom of indifference reduces the concept of “freedom” to the ability to choose between alternatives, regardless of whether the alternatives are good or conducive to ultimate flourishing.
From this perspective, we can say that Roe made another “choice” available to women, but it did not make them any freer or any happier. In a recent study comparing post-abortion reactions of Russian and American women, researchers found that
29.4% of women received counseling beforehand and only 17.5% were counseled on alternatives
51.9% of women felt they needed more time to make a decision
64% of women felt pressured by others
50.7% of women felt abortion was morally wrong
Only 0.9% of women claimed that their relationship with their partner improved, 26.7% cited relationship problems, and 19.8% reported their relationship with their partner ended.
3.7% claimed to feel more in control of their lives.
53.9% of women reported feeling badly
36.4% reported thoughts of suicide
77.9% felt guilt
Supporters of Roe will often admit that abortion is not a “good” choice, as does this anonymous Roe supporter from the aforementioned Facebook conversation:
Anonymous G: “Suffice to say that NO WOMAN WANTS AN ABORTION, something is “forcing” her to make such a choice. Each woman’s story is “anecdotal”, because every situation is different, so we cannot discount anecdotal evidence. . . In the ideal world of every abortion provider, there is no abortion – and women are 1) educated enough about reproduction and contraception, and has access to contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, or 2) has the financial and emotional support to care for a child conceived in an unintended pregnancy. [T]he more concerning exertion of power over women would be to take away any possibility of choosing. More anecdotes, but ones that I’ve heard from honestly every gynecologist of a certain age who practiced before Roe, is that at any given time, there was at least one woman on the gyn units admitted for complications of back alley abortions, ranging from simple infection, to sepsis and death.
If women pre- and post-Roe are often pressured or coerced into getting abortions (as even Alan Guttmacher, the research agency of Planned Parenthood admits), and if abortion is not a good and desirable-in-itself option, then it seems odd that the solution would be the legalization of abortion.
According to a Thomistic concept of freedom as laid out by Pinckaers, the law is there to direct agents towards those things that will ultimately lead to their flourishing. The law is “coercive” in a way because it ultimately directs people to do certain things and avoid doing certain things that may not be consistent with their immediate desires. For example, the law “coerces” me to pay taxes, even if I do not really want to, because paying taxes leads to the sort of things (roads, public schools, libraries) that I really do want and really do ultimately make me happy.
This Thomistic attitude towards freedom and the implications for the abortion debate was expressed aptly on my FB wall by another Thomist:
Anonymous G: “It really is not that simple (more restrictions = less options). Yes, there is a certain truth to it. But there is another dynamic at work. Now that women are free to choose abortion, everyone from boyfriends to parents to taxpayers are increasingly free to see children as “her choice, her problem.” In the days before Roe (yes, many bad stories could be told), there were some pretty incredible networks of support that a woman in an unintended pregnancy could rely on. Funny, that was a world where more restrictions on women meant (oh, look!) MORE options for women who wanted to find a way to bring their children to term and/or keep them. Legalizing abortion added one option, and took away many.
As such, the appropriate legal reaction to the imbalanced power dynamics between women and men pre-Roe should not have been making another bad option available to women. Rather, it should have been stronger coercive measures that lead to the overall health and flourishing of women and men. Such measures might include stronger penalties for domestic abuse and back-alley abortion providers, increased availability of pregnancy resources like financial support, housing, counseling, education, and health care, easier access to adoption agencies and childcare, and better maternity leave options in both schools and colleges and the workplace.
Feminists for Life is a group focusing on exactly these issues. FFL works to provide real opportunities to college students, for example, who find themselves pregnant and want to both keep their baby and finish school (things like providing on-campus housing and healthcare for students and their babies, desks that can accommodate the bulging bellies of pregnant students, and on-site daycare). The FFL website effectively illustrates how its mission relies on a better concept of “freedom” and “choice than the pro-Roe crowd:
Most women do not want to have an abortion. Most women do not want to leave school. Pregnant and parenting students want, and deserve, other viable choices. Feminists for Life’s College Outreach Program is all about choices – the choices women truly want.
Still, Planned Parenthood refers to FFL’s College Outreach Program as “anti-choice:”
FFL’s College Outreach Program is “the newest and most challenging concept in anti-choice campus organizing” and “could have a profound impact” on college campuses “as well as Planned Parenthood’s public education and advocacy efforts.”
This brings us back to David Gushee’s original quote, in which he places “liberation” in quotes. The idea that I think he is appealing to is that Roe is necessary in a society where sex is normative and women and men are, at least on the surface, relatively equal. Pre-Roe, men could have sex with women, get them pregnant, and not suffer any financial, legal, or emotional consequences. The expectation with Roe was that women would now be able to do the same—have sex, get pregnant, but not suffer any financial, legal, or emotional consequences. This has not happened. The burden of both a pregnancy and an abortion still falls on women. Women are still suffering. And those gendered power dynamics have not really improved.
What about back-alley abortions? Well, according NOW (a pro-Roe organization), “during the 1950s and 60s, each year an estimated 160 to 260 women died from illegal abortions, while thousands more were seriously injured.” I am not denying that such deaths and injuries are not a tragedy (they are), but arguably, woman are suffering just as much as a whole post-Roe in light of all the other negative consequences associated with abortion (and a whole lot more abortions to boot—an average of 1.2 million a year now).
And rape and incest? According to a study cited by the NYTimes (by no means a “pro-life” establishment), just 1% of all abortions are due to rape or incest. Again, these are tragedies, but legalizing abortion is in no way a sufficient response to a woman who is pregnant because sex was forced on her against her will. In light of these tragedies, would it not be better to take economic and political steps to foster the true freedom of these and other women who have been victimized? Greater access to counseling and adoption resources, for example, so that women who are already victims do not also have to become victims of their own guilt? Giving a woman the opportunity to get an abortion after she was raped does not make the rape go away, but it may make it easier for a woman to hide the fact that she was raped or abused by a family member. The recent Planned Parenthood fiasco in which a woman was taped giving abortion advice to a man posing as a sex abuser just goes to illustrate this.
Now, I am not denying that Planned Parenthood and Roe supporters, both male and female, will still argue that the best way to empower women is to legalize abortion (my lengthy FB wall is a testimony to that). I am not arguing (and I do not think Gushee is either) that some women do benefit from easy and legal access to abortion. His point is that simply giving women another choice (and a bad one, at that, as so many pro-Roe people admit) in no way fixes the underlying root causes that women seek out abortion in the first place, and may even do more to exacerbate those root causes than to fix them. We can do better than abortion.
Jim, over at Zwinglius Redivivus, has a post entitled “Egypt Burns, and the Theologians and Biblical Scholars Remain Silent.” He writes,
Nothing really needs to be added to that title except one blazingly evident fact: too many are so involved in pointless pursuits and the useless drivel and dreck of their own limited interests that they are blind to what’s going on around them and voiceless.
Therefore they are, as far as I am concerned, worthless. If the teaching of Scripture isn’t applied to real life (as opposed to attempting to apply it to sci-fi and other stupidities) and theologians and biblical scholars have nothing to say to or about events such as we are presently witnessing, I think they have proven themselves unworthy of the title they bear and no longer relevant to anything, for anything at all.
I don’t normally read his blog (I found this post through a link on another blog), but Jim has a point. What say we blogger theologians about the events unfolding in the largest country in the Middle East?
Aquinas, following Aristotle, is clearly a supporter of a people’s right to rise up against an unjust tyrant. He writes in “On Kingship”
If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power restricted by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant, even though it had previously subjected itself to him in perpetuity, because he himself has deserved that the covenant with his subjects should not be kept, since, in ruling the multitude, he did not act faithfully as the office of a king demands.
He is also wary of civil unrest. He goes on in “On Kingship” to say, “The welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace.” However, his more systematic response to the disorder caused by political revolution is in the Summa, in the treatise on sedition (contained within the larger treatise on charity, not justice, as you may be surprised to know). In II-II 42.1, Aquinas identifies sedition (“when one state rises in tumult against another part”) as a sin “opposed to a special kind of good, namely the unity and peeace of a people.” In 42.2, he cites Augustine (De Civ. Dei ii, 21) that “‘wise men understand the word ‘people’ to designate not any crowd of person, but the assembly of those who are united together in fellowship recognized by law and for the common good.’ Wherefore it is evident that the unity to which sedition is opposed is the unity of law and common good: whence it follows manifestly that sedition is opposed to justice and the common good.”
Aquinas’ comments on sedition in the Summa are not opposed to what he says in “On Kingship.” In “On Kingship,” the overthrow of an unjust tyrant is an expression of unity on behalf of the common good. He confirms this in 42.2 ad. 1: “It is lawful to fight, provided it be for the common good. But sedition runs counter to the common good of the multitude, so that it is always a mortal sin.” And in the same article ad. 3, he says even more explicitly:
A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5; Ethic. viii, 10). Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Ondeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude.
In other words, Aquinas would probably say that a lawful uprising in accord with the common good simply is not sedition, in the same way that taking food from another when one’s life is in danger is not stealing (II-II, 66.7). Since neither are opposed to the common good, neither are sins.
So this brings us to Egypt. There is some fear among US onlookers that the uprising is the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, which could potentially be contrary to the common good (especially the small group of Egyptian Coptics). But Egypt’s Islamist opposition has vowed to “respect the will of the Egyptian people” if Mubarak is disposed. Moreover, the uprising is more eclectic than merely the Muslim Brotherhood, as the Guardian notes:
“There is widespread exaggeration about the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian society, and I think these demonstrations have exposed that,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Egypt’s political Islamists at Durham University. “At first the movement showed little interest in the protests and announced they weren’t going to participate; later they were overtaken by events and forced to get involved or risk losing all credibility.” . . .
. . . Even on Friday, when the Brotherhood finally threw its weight behind efforts to bring down the government – a stance its leadership initially held back from – Islamist slogans were noticeable by their absence, and the formal contribution of the movement remained limited.
The Egyptian revolution, therefore, does not seem to fit the criteria for sedition. Rather, it seems the whole nation, and especially the youth, are rising collectively to challenge the injustices of a tyrant. Still, the unrest in the country definitely endangers the common good, and needs to be settled as quickly as possible.
Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio in 1967, keeping largely with the Thomistic tradition, “We know . . . that a revolutionary uprising–save where there is a manifest, long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country–produces new injustices, throws more elements out of balance and brings on new disasters. A real evil should not be fought against as the cost of greater misery.”
Although the mood is celebratory, the violence can escalate rapidly. Nik Kristof blogs from Cairo
The people I talked to mostly insisted that the army would never open fire on civilians. I hope they’re right. To me, the scene here is eerily like that of Tiananmen Square in the first week or so after martial law was declared on May 20, 1989, when soldiers and citizens cooperated closely. But then the Chinese government issued live ammunition and ordered troops to open fire, and on the night of June 3 to 4, they did – and the result was a massacre.
In the past, the army famously refused President Sadat’s order to crack down on bread riots, and maybe they won’t crack down this time. But I’ve seen this kind of scenario unfolding before in Indonesia, South Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, Taiwan and China, and the truth is that sometimes troops open fire and sometimes they don’t. As far as I can see, Mubarak’s only chance to stay in power is a violent crackdown – otherwise, he has zero chance of remaining president. And he’s a stubborn old guy: he may well choose to crack heads; of course, whether the army would follow orders to do so is very uncertain. The army is one of the few highly regarded institutions in Egyptian society, and massacres would end that forever.
One troubling sign is that the government isn’t showing signs of backing down. It used fighter planes to buzz Tahrir, in what surely seems an effort to intimidate protesters. It moved the curfew even earlier today, to 3 pm. It has sent the police back into some areas. The Internet remains shut off. And the state media continue to be full of lies. None of that sounds like a government preparing to bow to the power of the people.
It seems clear that Mubarak needs to go, but his overthrow will only be moral so long as the scale tips in balance of the common good.
Tomorrow, around 200,000 people will march in the frigid DC temps to protest the ongoing cultural and legal support for abortion in this country. Those who march, and those who support them in spirit, will have in mind especially the recent discovery of a Philadelphia abortion clinic where not only late term abortions, but also infanticide, went on for years, unchecked by any government oversight. Kermit Gosnell, who is being charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of seven infants and a Bhutanese refugee who died in his care after a late term abortion in 2009, had been sued 15 times for malpractice and had two women die in his clinic without raising any neighborhood eyebrows about the practices going on his clinic. What is most disturbing about the story is the following quote from the grand jury report:
“We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color,” the report said, “and because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
“The women in question were poor and of color.”
The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago advanced what he called “the seamless garment” of life, recognizing that the protection of life is threatened on many fronts in our society, not only by abortion, but also by war and capital punishment, euthanasia and suicide, poverty and racism. Bernadin recognized that whenever one area of life is attacked, others will follow.
This is the message of Guadium et Spes, confirmed by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae:
“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (GS 27, EV 3).
The grand jury report on Gosnell confirms supporters of a consistent ethic of life that abortion is not an isolated issue. A society that is ready to sacrifice millions of nameless unborn in the name of expediency is also a society likely to sacrifice poor and colored women in the name of expediency. The unborn and the women who bear them are related. Considering the following interview from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.
Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong (pgs. 3 and 4).
Note what Justice Ginsburg says: “I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion.” Ginsburg is admitting that there was an association at the time of Roe with “reproductive rights” and what we might call “eugenics policies” (curbing the reproduction of poorer women).
As we remember the anniversary of Roe v. Wade tomorrow and the millions of victims of abortion that have resulted from that decision, we cannot forget the women that have also been victimized by abortion policies and attitudes. And we cannot pretend that by keeping abortion legal, we are also protecting women.
So as we march and pray and work for life, we will also remember the words of Sargent Shriver, who passed away this week, and others who work to promote a consistent ethic of life for all, especially the most vulnerable:
“The advocates of abortion on demand falsely assume two things: that women must suffer if the lives of unborn children are legally protected; and that women can only attain equality by having the legal option of destroying their innocent offspring in the womb. The cynicism of these assumptions reflects a terrible failure of moral imagination and social responsibility and an appalling lack of respect for women.”
The Supreme Court has been wrestling with a lot of First Amendment questions on the nature of free speech. In January, the court ruled 5-4 in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205 that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections on the basis that the government had no right to regulate political speech.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court considered the case of the Christian Legal Society at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law which wants recognition as an official campus organization with school financing and benefits whilst maintaining its first amendment right to ban “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle,” including “all act of sexual conduct outside of God’s design for marriage between one man and one woman, which acts include fornication, adultery and homosexual conduct.” In a similar vein, next week the court will consider Dove v. Reed, No. 09-559 on the question of whether Washington State’s open records law violates the free speech rights of people who signed ballot petitions, especially against gay marriage, by requiring their names to be made public.
The case the court considered today was particularly surprising, ruling 8-1 to strike down a federal ban on the creation and distribution of videos depicting animal violence and abuse.
The case arose from the prosecution of Robert J. Stevens, an author and small-time film producer who presented himself as an authority on pit bulls. He did not participate in dogfights, but he did compile and sell videotapes showing the fights, and he received a 37-month sentence under a 1999 federal law that bans trafficking in “depictions of animal cruelty.”
Dogfighting and other forms of animal cruelty have long been illegal in all 50 states. The law applied not to the underlying activity, but to recordings of “conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed.” It did not matter whether the conduct was legal when and where it occurred; under the law, what mattered was whether the conduct would have been illegal where the recording was sold.
The government argued that such depictions were of such minimal social worth that they should receive no First Amendment protection at all. Chief Justice Roberts roundly rejected that assertion, saying that “the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter or its content.”
Roberts was asked to compare this case with the case of trafficking child pornography, which the court ruled in 1982 deserved no First Amendment protection. Roberts declared that child pornography is distinct because the market for it is “intrinsically related to the underlying abuse.”
Besides the fact that videos of animal abuse also seem “intrinsically related to the underlying abuse,” these cases of first amendment freedoms prompt us to question what we mean by “freedom.” Servais Pinckars, the recently deceased Dominican moral theologian who helped bring the Bible back to Catholic ethics, provides a useful distinction for considering this question. Pinckaers distinguishes between “freedom of indifference,” which is the freedom to choose generally between two contraries, with the “freedom for excellence.” This latter form of freedom is the capacity and power to choose wisely, to choose those things which are both consistent with truth and goodness and which are conducive to the happiness–or eudaimonia–of human beings. Freedom of indifference is, in a sense, the power to do whatever you want. It is freedom for the sake of freedom, freedom which is an end in itself. Freedom for excellence, however, is a teleological notion of freedom in which freedom has a purpose (a telos) beyond its mere exercise. We are free for the sake of something.
Accordingly, law is inextricably linked with freedom. According to a “freedom of indifference” mindset, the law is in place to keep any unnecessary barriers away from a person having the ability to do whatever they want. This is the idea that “as long as I am not hurting anybody, what I do is none of the government’s business.” However, in a “freedom for excellence” mindset, law is a pedagogue in freedom. That is, the law teaches us how to be free. Good laws help human beings achieve the good which they naturally desire by pointing to the telos–human flourishing or eudaimonia–in which all choice ought to be oriented.
The law ought to point us to the good, not just give us the maximum space in which we may do whatever we want. Accordingly, when we look at laws like this one which the Supreme Court struck down today, we ought to ask ourselves what the purpose of the law is. In this case, it seems that the purpose of the law against trafficking videos of animal abuse is to prevent people from indulging in products that in no way contribute to human flourishing. Watching videos of abuse and violence towards animals is in no way an expression of freedom understood teleologically. There is no good goal (telos) of the production and marketing of such films, and to claim that a person has the right to engage in such actions as part of her “first amendment freedom” is yet another illustration that the Supreme Court’s notion of freedom does little to advance either the individual or societal human good.
When Barack Obama was elected, I wrote a post on his connection with Christian realism of the Reinhold Niebuhr variety, which you can read about here.
Christian realism is basically the idea that the world is evil and that in order to fight that evil, you have to get your hands dirty. Christian realism says that an idealistic stance of non-violence allows evil to triumph over good. Although non-violence or pacifism may be an ideal, Christian realists say that this ideal must be subordinated to the utilitarian calculus of political force and violence. Augustine adopted a Christian realist position in advocating an interior ethic of love, but an exterior ethic of expediency. Luther adopted a Christian realist position against the peasants in his treatise “Against the Thieving, Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” Reinhold Niebuhr was the Christian realist par excellence in his support of strong-armed cold war politics.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. . . I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Brooks commends President Obama for a “thoroughly theological” speech which “talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor.” Brooks, himself a Christian realist, clearly finds the president’s moral position a prudent one.
I agree that Obama did a fine job articulating a realist stance and defending his political foreign policy on respectable moral grounds. But remember the context—Obama’s realist speech, which Brooks says “was the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life,” was given at his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is meant to acknowledge those idealists like Martin Luther King Jr. who choose not to get their hands dirty, who refuse to succumb to violent tactics even in the defense of a just cause. Such prizes are meant to provide recognition and encouragement to those idealists who provide a witness for what is morally possible, even if it isn’t morally expedient.
Christians like Brooks are supportive of the president’s speech because, since Christianity has existed, Christians have been more comfortable compromising with the world’s evil than they have been resisting the world’s evil with non-violent agape. Those idealistic, non-violent witnesses, minority that they are, are necessary and important reminders of the task to which Christians are called. One group of such idealistic witnesses were the Anabaptists.
The Anabaptists were a group of Christians involved in what was called the “Radical Reformation.” Concerned that reformers like Luther and Calvin were compromising too much in their political stances and failing to live up to the demands of the Christian life, the Anabaptist vision offered a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship (die Nachfolge Christi), the essence of the Christian church as a community of brothers and sisters, and the essence of Christian ethics as one of agapic love and non-violence.
The Anabaptists refused to accept the state church system which reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin were a part of. They did not participate in the government for the precise reason that earthly institutions like the magistracy required moral compromise that the Anabaptists found inconsistent with Christian life. The Schleitheim Confession of Faith, an early Anabaptist collection of beliefs states this as an agreement to separation [from the world]:
A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them [the wicked] and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who [have come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other. To us then the command of the Lord is clear when He calls upon us to be separate from the evil and thus He will be our God and we shall be His sons and daughters. . .
Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force — such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use [either] for friends or against one’s enemies I would like the records — by virtue of the word of Christ, Resist not [him that is] evil.
In other words, the Anabaptists did not believe that Christ came so that we could continue resisting the corruption of the world with the tools of corruption or using evil to fight evil. Rather, Christ came to liberate us from evil, and by choosing to follow Him, the Anabaptists believed we must necessarily forsake force, violence, and political power of any kind.
Because of their commitment to non-violence and the principle of worldly separation, the Anabaptists had a lot of enemies. From 1527-1560, the Anabaptists were severely persecuted. The 1529 Diet of Spires passed a death sentence on all Anabaptists of either sex [by] fire, sword, or some other way.” The 1551 Diet of Augsburg decreed that any judge or juror who had scruples about executing an Anabaptist be removed from office, fined, and/or imprisoned. As a result of these decrees, thousands of Anabaptists were executed in the 16th century, without trial or sentence. Yet, as Harold Bender writes in his quippy “The Anabaptist Vision,”
The authorities had great difficulty in executing their program of suppression, for they soon discovered that the Anabaptists feared neither torture nor death, and gladly sealed their faith with their blood. In fact, the joyful testimony of the Anabaptist martyrs was a great stimulus to new recruits, for it stirred the imagination of the populace as nothing else could have done.
Bender goes on to conclude:
However, the Anabaptist was realistic. Down the long perspective of the future he saw little chance that the mass of humankind would enter such a brotherhood with its high ideals. Hence he anticipated a long and grievous conflict between the church and the world. Neither did he anticipate the time when the church would rule the world; the church would always be a suffering church. He agreed with the words of Jesus when He said that those who would be His disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him, and that there would be few who would enter the strait gate and travel the narrow way of life. If this prospect should seem too discouraging, the Anabaptist would reply that the life within the Christian brotherhood is satisfying full of love and joy.
Compare this to Obama’s Nobel speech:
[A]s a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [Gandhi and King’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. . . So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.
Understandably, Obama cannot reasonably embrace the Anabaptist vision, but I do think that the Anabaptist vision can embrace Christians who have too long capitulated to the claims of realism. David Brooks seems pleased with the theological underpinnings of Obama’s political philosophy. He writes, “Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.” While Brooks may be correct in noting the theological underpinnings of Obama’s politics, Christians need to question whether those underpinnings adequately reflect the nature of discipleship to Christ.
Love and evil are not two warring powers, as Brooks so dualistically proposes. What the Anabaptist vision reminds us is that Christian love overcomes evil not by force, but by inspiration and imagination. Christian love, as lived out by the Anabaptists, provides a witness to what is best and noblest in human nature. In the wake of such love, evil simply becomes impotent. The County of Alzey, after executing 350 Anabaptists in Palatinate, was said to exclaim, “What shall I do? The more I kill, the greater becomes their number!” Barack Obama’s speech says that such love cannot ultimately triumph against the world’s evils, and that if good is to overcome evil, force will be necessary. But the Anabaptist vision says otherwise. Heinrich Bullinger, one of the Anabaptist’s enemies and persecutors, wrote that the Anabaptists taught,
One cannot and should not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, for faith is a free gift of God. It is wrong to compel anyone by force or coercion to embrace the faith, or to put to death anyone for the sake of his erring faith. It is an error that in the church any sword other than that of the Divine Word should be used. The secular kingdom should be separated from the church, and no secular ruler should exercise authority in the church. The Lord has commanded simply to preach the Gospel, not to compel anyone by force to accept it. The true church of Christ has the characteristic that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone.
It is unfortunate that a peace prize meant to recognize those idealists who believe peace without violence is possible ended up rewarding a spirit of moral compromise this year. But it is even more unfortunate that Christians like Brooks think that Obama’s message is grounded in theology of Jesus Christ. So I will conclude this post with the same words in which I concluded my last post arguing against Christian realism:
As Stanley Hauerwas notes,
Jesus’ cross . . . is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. The cross is not the confirmation of the facile assumption that it is better to give than receive. Rather, the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.”
Jesus does not play power politics. He does not fight the evil of the world on evil’s terms. He does not use violence, power, and coercion to fulfill his mission. Nor does he expect his disciples to. Jesus invites his disciples to his own non-violent love, a love that will indeed overcome the powers of the world, but not through coercion and force.
The Anabaptist vision gives us a glimpse of what Jesus’ non-violent love actually can accomplish.
In light of the inauguration of Barack Obama who cites Reinhold Niebuhr as one of the most influential theologians on his way of thinking about politics, and in light of the fact that my students have been studying Reinhold Niebuhr, I have been thinking a lot about Christian realism recently. Lots of people, it turns out, have been pondering the meaning, scope, and contemporary relevance of Christian realism. I was assigned a question on my comprehensive exams examining the theological coherence of Reinhold Niebuhr’s political stances, and last week Boston College hosted a conference with Jean Bethke Elshtain, Andrew Bacevich, and Bryan Hehir on the subject of Realism, Ethics, and US Public Policy. So it seems a fitting time for Everydaythomist to explain what Christian realism is, delineate a little bit of its history, and raise a few questions about just how “Christian” it is.
First, we must understand what realism is. Realism is a political theory that views politics as a realm shorn of all moral and ethical constraints. Sometimes called “power politics,” a realist politics is not motivated by concerns for the common good or virtue, but rather by self-interest, necessity, and most of all, maximization of power. According to realism, politics is seen as limited only by power constraints, not by ethical constraints about what may or may not be just. As Michael Walzer puts it, who dedicates the first chapter of his book Just and Unjust Wars to arguing “Against Realism,” realism can be summed up as “they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.”
Some big names are attached to a realist ethos: Thucydides, who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes, and Machiavelli. In some ways, realism is a kind of pre-Christian philosophy. It is the politics of Athens and Sparta and Rome, not of Christendom. In fact, pre-modern and modern advocates of reviving realism have seen Christianity as a threat. Rousseau, for example, said that Christians were wretched citizens, that politically, they were like lambs being led to the slaughter. In the public square, Rousseau wanted Christianity replaced with a hearty civic religion, which espoused virtues more in line with a realist agenda than a Christian one. Christian virtues, of which Nietzsche was so critical, were effeminizing virtues that encouraged citizens to be weak, passive, and unfit for civic life or political leadership.
So how do we get from Christianity being the enemy of realism, to a political theory called “Christian realism?” The first place to look is in the political theory and public theology of Augustine. According to Augustine, the moral vision of Jesus could not provide the basis for a viable political and social ethic. Rather, Augustine argued that the gospel ethic such as found in the Sermon on the Mount (love of enemies, non-resistance, etc.) were rather intended for an interior ethic that would no doubt influence Christian behavior but not wholly dictate Christian participation in the world. In other words, Christian morality sets certain limits on behavior, but the moral vision of Jesus was considered an impossible ideal, not achievable in this world.
The place we see this form of Christian realism playing itself out is in the doctrine of just war. Although it seems as if Jesus’ ethic, and Paul’s as well, would prohibit Christians from participating in war, or any form of violent resistance, Augustine argued against the pacifists of his day that Jesus was actually only talking about one’s inner intention, not one’s behavior when he said to “resist not an enemy.” Augustine thought that Christians could participate in war and kill enemies of Rome, but they had to do so with a inner disposition of love, not of revenge or hatred. Christian realism thus becomes a kind of “ethic of compromise” between the strong realism of the secular order and the non-violent perfectionist ethic of Jesus.
In the contemporary period, the phrase “Christian realism” immediately brings to mind the Protestant Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. According to Niebuhr, conflict and violence are pervasive features of human life. The ethics of Jesus, what Niebuhr called an ethic of agape or Christian love can never provide the basis for a political or social ethic, but an ethic of agape can inform the social and political realm, curbing the inevitable conflict and violence and providing the baseline for a minimal ethic of justice. Like Augustine, Niebuhr thought that Christian ethics could set limits on a stronger realist ethic based solely on power, but Christian ethics could not expect to totally obliterate violent struggles for power. In fact, Niebuhr strongly supported certain struggles for power, such as those between the USSR and the USA as the “lesser of two evils.”
Christian realists are unanimously convinced that Jesus’ standard of morality is an impossible ideal. You simply cannot love your enemy, resist all evil, or go the extra mile in our sinful world. Moreover, Christian realists are unanimously terrified that if Christians did try and live out Jesus’ ethics, the consequences would be horrible. Luther thought, for example, that if Christians tried to live as pacifists, the “ravenous wolves” of the world would take over the Christian church and herald in the reign of Satan. Augustine was terrified of the chaos that accompanied war and other social upheaval and considered such chaos to be antithetical to the Christian life. Thus it was better for Christians to compromise their ethic in order to prevent the greater evil of social chaos than it was for them to live out the moral vision of Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr was a little more fatalistic. He thought that human beings simply could not live as Jesus had commanded them and to try to do so, like the liberal Protestant followers of the Social Gospel in his day were doing, were setting themselves up for disaster.
In an oft-cited David Brooks’ op-ed from the New York Times, then presidential candidate Barack Obama listed his reasons for loving the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. When asked what he takes from Niebuhr, Obama responded,
I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.
The idea is that you cannot rid the world from evil, but you also cannot be afraid of getting your hands a little dirty (as Michael Walzer) says fighting what evil you can. Moral compromises are necessary if you expect to achieve any sort of moral victory, however small it might be.
This all sounds fine and good, except for the fact that it really does not seem consistent with what Jesus expected of his disciples. Reading the Sermon on the Mount, for example, I do not get the impression that Jesus was laying out an impossible ideal for Christian morality, but really and truly telling his followers how to behave. Moreover, Jesus seems to acknowledge that his ethic, while not impossible to live out, will not be an ethics of power, that is, a realist ethic. We see this especially in the reading from Mark 8:27-9:1 where Jesus asks the question, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter gives the correct answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, but errs in assuming that Jesus will be a powerful Messiah, indicated by Jesus’ harsh rebuke to “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” As Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most famous Christian advocates of non-violence alive today, writes, “Jesus insists it is possible, if God’s rule is acknowledged and trusted, to serve without power.”
The coercive struggles for power that form the status quo for the world’s political activity, which we have defined here as realism, are not the ways of the Christian. Rather, the cross is the only basis for a Christian realism. The cross reveals the reality of the world, namely, that sin is real and that sin has usurped the rule of God. And the cross also reveals what Christians can expect from the world if they are faithful to their call of discipleship. Faithful Christian disciples have to be prepared to sacrifice themselves, to stretch out their arms and say “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
But as Stanley Hauerwas notes,
Jesus’ cross . . . is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. The cross is not the confirmation of the facile assumption that it is better to give than receive. Rather, the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.”
Jesus does not play power politics. He does not fight the evil of the world on evil’s terms. He does not use violence, power, and coercion to fulfill his mission. Nor does he expect his disciples to. Jesus invites his disciples to his own non-violent love, a love that will indeed overcome the powers of the world, but not through coercion and force.