An Incarnational Response to Pacifism

I had a physics teacher in high school who used to call people out by saying “I won’t say any names, but his initials are Alex Marshall.”  I actually enjoyed that class, more than I can say for most other classes in high school and definitely more than I can say for any other science course I have ever taken (there is a reason I’m in a philosophical field).  Well all that to say, I have a roommate, and I won’t say any names but his initials are… just kidding!  If you know my roommates, this won’t take long to figure out.  So we all genuinely get along, but also have some drastic differences in opinion on a couple of issues, one being the issue of pacificism, or more generally a Christian response to culture.  My roommate’s conception of pacificism is a bit more radical than most I have encountered before- typically I think of pacificism as merely being opposition to warfare, maybe more broadly to physical violence.  However, I think my roommate has a consistent argument when he claims that opposing violence will lead us to have to disengage from many aspects of our culture (especially the government) which condone or participate in violence.  He also associates violence with non-physical actions- any sort of coercion can be violent, including verbal coercion or attempts at such.
Now, my most basic opposition to pacificism is that I think it does not do justice to the complexity of life.  The pacifist wants to argue that black-and-white distinctions between moral and immoral violence cannot be maintained.  I’m fine with that.  I’m fine, even supportive, of the idea that we can critique the typical oppressor-oppressed schema for understanding and justifying violence as too simple and not taking into account the real complexities of human nature.  But we can’t then turn right around and make the same move by making a black-and-white schema in which all violence is immoral and non-violence not.  The point of the post-modern deconstruction of oppressor-oppressed systems is not to replace the system with another equally over-simplified description of reality (or at least, it shouldn’t be).  If we are going to acknowledge the complexity of life, we have to acknowledge it on both sides of the issue, both the violent and the non-violent as well as the oppressor and the oppressed.
Tonight, however, while sitting in a meeting with said roommate listening to a speaker a more directly theological argument occurred to me.  I think the incarnation itself provides reasons for questioning pacifism (directly challenging the idea that the incarnation provides justification for pacifism here).  Two arguments derived from the incarnation that make pacifism seem untenable to me:
  1. The incarnation is historically conditioned.  By this we mean Christ came to a particular time and place within a particular culture and that he actively engaged all levels of that culture.  If we are to follow the example of Christ it would seem that we are required, therefore, to engage our particular culture in our particular time at all levels of our culture.  This means being actively involved in even the areas of our culture that would normally stand in direct opposition to many of our views.  If pacifism requires that we disengage from the political sphere because the government supports violence, then I would argue pacifism prevents us from being able to follow the example of Christ and be “incarnational” ourselves.
  2. The way in which Christ engages the culture he is part of is anything but peaceful.  His speech and arguments are extremely confrontational- he definitely rocks the boat.  On one occasion that we have record of he even resorts to physical “violence,” overturning the tables in the temple and driving out money changers there using a whip.  Eventually this leads to his being crucified.  I have argued elsewhere that at least in Matthew’s account (and I think the case could probably be made in other gospels, I have just only taken the time to make it in regard to Matthew) the crucifixion and resurrection narrative contains the idea of a military victory over his enemies (the religious leaders he has been opposing).  That Jesus does not engage in direct military violence against the Roman authority does not mean that his confrontation of his society is not in some sense violent towards those he does oppose (which, by the way, seems consistent with the Old Testament statements about God’s actions towards his enemies and the prophecies of the book of Revelation and even some statements of Paul).  Essentially, I am arguing that Jesus seems to engage in an ethic with two sides to it- one side being the non-retaliatory side which pacifism jumps on, the second being the directly confrontational side in which he interacts with his culture on all levels and challenges it deeply as he does so.  Only following one side of this ethic requires us to fall short of the call the incarnation places on us.  It also goes back to the above point about painting too simple a picture of life.
Now I say all these things with some major caveats.  It is extremely difficult to enter into a conversation like this without sounding as though I support physical violence as a normal mode of operation for Christians.  I certainly do not.  Its nearly impossible to enter in a conversation like this without political overtones coming into play.  So for the record, I have no intention of condoning the war the United States is currently engaged in with these comments.  This is not about particulars, its about the general idea of violence vs. non-violence.  What I want to argue is that this issue, like many others, is not one that can be laid out in black-and-white absolutes.  We are called to engage our culture in a redemptive, and therefore often confrontational, way.  What exactly that looks like in every instance it is impossible to know.  Therefore, it is impossible to make exacting claims about what is or is not acceptable as part of that process.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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