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Friday, May 12, 2017

How mere Christianity made me a Catholic

For many years now, the main rival to Catholicism for me has been the concept of "mere Christianity" articulated by C. S. Lewis. Lewis' most famous explanation of the subject is, of course, in his book of that name (based on radio lectures he gave to the Royal Air Force during WWII). Lewis' articulation of basic Christian teaching has been extremely influential, but perhaps even more influential has been the very idea that there is such a thing. Lewis may,, in fact, have done more for Christian unity than the entire institutional ecumenical movement.

Lewis himself was, of course, an Anglican. Catholic admirers have often wondered why he didn't go "all the way" and become Catholic--indeed, there are no fewer than three books on the subject. (The most recent is actually by a Protestant, I believe.) But of course even asking the question presupposes a Catholic position. Tolkien was right, I think, in saying that Lewis became Anglican primarily because that was his heritage (and a very honorable reason that is, in my opinion). But certainly the relative lack of dogmatism of Anglicanism and its emphasis on the ancient consensus of the Church suited Lewis' temperament very well.

While Lewis did occasionally make criticisms of Catholicism or try to explain to Catholic friends why he saw no need to "convert," Lewis himself did not actively set  "mere Christianity" over against "Roman" Catholicism, or indeed any particular Christian tradition. In Mere Christianity, he compared what he was articulating to the vestibule of a house. The goal, according to Lewis, was to choose a room and settle in.

But there's something intrinsically unstable about this metaphor. After all, the point of "mere Christianity" is that it covers basic truths all Christians agree on such as the Incarnation, the need for divine grace, the sacraments (at least baptism and Eucharist), the authority of Scripture, and so on. For any particular version of Christianity, these things are at the center of the "house"--they aren't simply the vestibule.

So it's not surprising that many people who adopt Lewis' slogan treat "mere Christianity" as a rival to more particular Christian traditions, such as Catholicism. Lewis has, in fact, given substance and focus to the longstanding Protestant rhetoric of distinguishing between "essentials" and "nonessentials." The fatal flaw in this approach has always been the disagreement among Protestants as to which items are "essential" and which are "nonessential." Lewis seems to point the way to a solution.

But in fact, the problem remains. For instance, a few years ago there was talk of starting a new "Great Books" Christian college, named after C. S. Lewis, which would have "mere Christianity" as its only standard. This was explained to me as being defined by the Nicene Creed. S. M. Hutchens, however, a writer for Touchstone (which bills itself as a journal of "Mere Christianity"), suggested that if the college wanted to be faithful to Lewis' vision of mere Christianity it should exclude anyone who believed in women's ordination, which Hutchens (claiming Lewis' support) believes is fundamentally incompatible with orthodox Christianity. (Hutchens made this statement in a comment which I now have trouble finding, but his view can be clearly seen in this later article about the conflict over women's ordination in the ACNA.)

The question of gay unions and "non-traditional" sexualities generally is an even more acid test of "mere Christianity" as a measure of orthodoxy. Many who are willing to accept disagreement on women's ordination, or even regard the ordination of women as the obvious move, see a "liberal" view on homosexuality or "gender identity" as incompatible with "mere Christian" orthodoxy. Yet there are many who accept historic creedal orthodoxy while believing that this is a point where new understanding of human psychology and biology needs to prompt a shift in how we think about sexuality, and that this is entirely compatible with the basic principles of traditional Christian sexual morality. So we have, at least, a three-way division among would-be proponents of "mere Christianity": those who accept both gay unions and women's ordination, those who accept women's ordination but not gay unions, and those who accept neither. Factor in the distinction between holding to one position or the other and thinking that it's an essential part of "mere Christianity," and things get more complicated. (I, for instance, am not convinced that "mere Christianity" is incompatible with any of these positions, although my own theological judgment is "liberal" on women's ordination and "conservative" on sexuality.)

"Mere Christianity" is by definition something that we can only see in the rear-view mirror. It provides little help in solving live debates in the present. Whenever the status of any one belief or practice is challenged, "mere Christianity" itself cannot solve the dispute--a living, concrete community is needed for that. But this, of course, takes us out of "mere Christianity" and back to the sectarian reality from which "mere Christianity" is supposed to deliver us.

So if Lewis was wrong that "mere Christianity" is merely the vestibule (because it's obviously the center of all the various forms of Christianity), and if "mere Christianity" can't function as an alternative to more concrete communities, where does that leave us? We need a concrete, rooted Christian tradition centered on "mere Christianity" but capable of addressing "borderline" issues and responding dynamically to the changing world.

I am not going to argue here why I think Catholicism fits that description better than the alternatives. Rather, the point I want to make is that for me Catholicism is not a rival to mere Christianity, so much as its fulfillment. As a Catholic, my faith is rooted deeply in precisely those elements of the faith that Lewis expounded so well--the ancient Creeds, the seven virtues, and the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.

The sacraments are a good place to see the relationship between "mere Christianity" and Catholicism. For Protestants, and thus for "mere Christianity" (since "mere Christianity" is by definition what Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants have historically shared), there are two fundamental sacraments. For CAtholics, of course, there are seven. Yet Catholic teaching affirms that baptism and Eucharist are central to Christian life, and that the other five sacraments flow from them and are ordered to them.

To be Catholic, then, should not mean sneering at the concept of "mere Christianity." Yes, it is a poor substitute for Catholicism. But a Catholicism that does not have a clear sense of the "hierarchy of truths," that treats all Catholic teaching as just "stuff the Church tells us to believe," is a deeply incoherent and unconvincing Catholicism. If there is one common denominator in the many ex-Catholics I've talked to, it is, overwhelmingly, a failure to see the underlying structure of Catholicism. Instead, ex-Catholics describe Catholicism over and over again as a set of "rules" that had come to seem largely arbitrary to them.

Thus, Catholics need "mere Christianity" just as "mere Christianity" needs Catholicism. "Mere Christianity" is neither a vestibule leading to a variety of equally legitimate "living quarters," nor a coherent alternative to Catholicism and other concrete embodiments of Christian faith and practice. It is the beating heart of the Faith, the "hearth" shared by all members of our squabbling, tragic, confused family.

Without "mere Christianity," I would not have become Catholic. Indeed, I would not be a Christian at all. But without Catholicism, "mere Christianity" would remain an abstraction.

Lewis' most powerful and compelling account of "mere Christianity" is not in the book of that name, but in his essay "On Reading Old Books," appropriately prefaced to a translation of Athanasius' On the Incarnation by Sister Penelope Lawson. Here, Lewis presents "mere Christianity" as a reading strategy--a standard that gives us balance and sanity as we navigate the often confusing labyrinth of contemporary religious opinion. And this approach is rooted in his own experience (which he would describe at more length in Surprised by Joy).
I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were "influences." George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that "Christianity" is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages "mere Christianity" turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed "Paganism" of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:
an air that kills
From yon far country blows. 
We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

My own experience matches Lewis', except that I approached the Christian tradition from a radical Protestant perspective rather than from that of an atheist ex-Anglican. Like Lewis, I was struck by what all these authors have in common. But once my feet were on the "great level viaduct," I discovered that it was taking me somewhere. And, like the pilgrim John in Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress, I found that it led me to Mother Kirk, in a somewhat more alarming and concrete way than Lewis himself intended by the term.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why we need the words "conservative" and "liberal"


One often hears people say that the labels "conservative" and "liberal" aren't helpful and we should drop them. In particular, in Catholic circles it's common for pious people to claim that the terms "conservative" and "liberal" don't apply. Many of the folks who say this are what I would call very conservative Catholics who think that there is only one possible Catholic position on most controversial topics. There are no "conservatives" or "liberals" because that would imply two legitimate groups. Rather, there are those who are orthodox and there are those who are not. The "orthodox," of course, agree with the speaker's interpretation of orthodoxy. Others genuinely wish for a faith that transcends political labels, and rightly not that "conservative" and "liberal" in their current American political senses don't map well onto the Catholic paradigm (or any traditional Christian paradigm).

Indeed, I think that it makes more sense to speak of conservative and liberal in terms of Catholicism than in terms of American politics. American political traditions are, by definition, "liberal" in the original 18th-century sense of the term. Americans exalt individual freedom and disparage tradition. To be a "conservative" in the contemporary political sense means to be pro-capitalist and generally pro-individualism--hardly what "conservative" traditionally meant.

While "conservative" and "liberal" do have specific meanings rooted in European politics, I think their most useful meaning is a general, relative one describing dynamics that occur in all organized groups or self-conscious traditions. In any group of people having an identity that endures over some time, there will be two related methodological questions:
1. How much change is compatible with maintaining the identity of the group? and
2. How strictly should norms of belief and/or conduct be enforced?

A "conservative" is one who pushes for less change and strict enforcement. A "liberal" is one who argues for more change and less policing of boundaries. These are the two most obvious alignments. However, one can draw up a quadrant in which the two questions form two distinct axes: change vs. continuity and strict enforcement vs. freedom.



It's possible to favor continuity with the past but relatively lax enforcement of boundaries, though this may be the hardest position to maintain (it's also more or less where I fall--go figure). It's also possible to make a break with the past and enforce it through rigid boundary controls (this is relatively more common, I think). For instance, in Calvin's Geneva people who gave their children saints' names could be hauled up before the Company of Pastors and fined. The break with the past was enforced through what looks to most of us today like very "conservative" forms of church discipline. But of course over time the "radical" position comes to be seen as the "traditional" one, making this position simply "conservative." One very funny example of this was during the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western media referred to those who wanted to preserve Communism as the "right" within the Soviet Union, when of course the entire Soviet political tradition was originally extreme "left." But by the 1980s people who were orthodox Marxist-Leninists were "conservatives" by the standard of their own tradition.

So there are four basic orientations:
Conservative (high continuity, rigid boundaries)
Liberal (low continuity, lax boundaries)
Radical (low continuity, rigid boundaries)
Traditional (high continuity, lax boundaries)

The naming of the fourth group is a problem. I'm not actually sure that it's a rare position, but it is a position that tends over time to be eroded, at least in modern Western culture. That is to say, modern Western culture is fundamentally "liberal," so continuity with tradition has to be a conscious effort by members of the particular community. My own position would (on a scale of 0 to 10 for each of the four categories) be something like 7 on continuity and 3 or 4 on freedom. That is to say, I favor quite a bit of freedom, but not by any means unlimited, while I stress continuity heavily.

A further complication is that these characteristics are, of course, tradition-specific. I'm describing my position primarily with regard to Catholicism--for years before I actually became Catholic, I thought about things through a primarily Catholic lens and saw Catholicism as the community against whose standards I should measure myself. As an Episcopalian, I was more straightforwardly conservative, because the Episcopal Church is much more liberal. Indeed, one of the reasons I became Catholic was so I didn't have to be my own boundary police any more.

To be more precise, I think about the first category more in terms of the Christian tradition as a whole. That is to say, when I ask "how much should we maintain continuity with the past," I am asking whether we should be more like liberal Protestants or fundamentalist Baptists or Pentecostals or neo-Anabaptist emergent hipsters or Eastern Orthodox or whatever. But when I ask how strictly the boundaries should be maintained, I am thinking of the authority structures which I have for years now accepted as normative--those of the Catholic Church. All baptized Christians are part of the Church. And this means that the authority structures of the Catholic Church are relevant for all Christians. That's one reason why I have never fit in as an evangelical. I can't take their authority structures seriously.

If I were asking the first question in terms of Catholicism alone (at least as represented by official teaching), I'd wind up as more like a 0, or maybe even a 1 in the direction of discontinuity. And if I were asking the second question in terms of all varieties of Christianity, I'd be more like a 2 in the direction of maintaining boundaries. If in terms of Episcopalianism alone, more like a 5.

In summary: we need the concepts of "liberal" and "conservative" because all communities have to ask questions about continuity and about boundaries. But we also need to recognize that this is not a simple binary and that the concepts are fluid and relative.

In a subsequent post, I'll talk about liberal and conservative in terms of contemporary "culture wars," and how the Christian faith relates to that particular liberal-conservative conflict.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Missing out": why helicopter parenting commodifies children

A friend of mine just posted on Facebook an incident in which someone berated her for "missing out on precious moments" with her child because she was checking Facebook while the child played. Now of course, in an age of social media, it is easy for parents to become absorbed with online trivialities at the expense of building a relationship with their children. But a stranger is in no position to know if a parent is doing this simply because she happens to be using technology at some particular moment.

What strikes me about this particular meme (which I've seen before--there are online articles that have gone viral expressing this idea) is the commodified approach to time it expresses. Economists speak of "opportunity cost": if you do X rather than Y, you are "paying" the opportunity to do Y for the sake of doing X. And obviously this is true, in the sense that, as Chesterton put it: "Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses. If you become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton. If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon." But for Chesterton this is about drama and adventure. The problem with the "missing out" argument is the assumption that "moments" with one's child are some sort of possession which one should covet greedily if one has the right priorities. While it sounds like a glorification of parental love, it actually treats the child, and the parent's relationship with the child, as being valuable for what the parent gets out of the relationship. The parent could have X number of "precious moments" but is settling for X-n. 

In fact, children need some time to play by themselves without the parent hovering. Parents who insist on being involved with every moment of the child's lives are refusing to allow the child to develop any degree of independence. It is control under the guise of love. This is how we get "helicopter parenting."

I'm sure that most of us who are parents could do with spending more time with our children and less time on social media. But it's not because our children are a source of a finite commodity called "precious moments" of which we should be greedy. It's because they are human beings, worthy of our love and attention and respect. Sometimes we show that respect by putting down our computers and spending time with them. Sometimes we show it by leaving them alone.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ben Carson is right: Slaves were immigrants

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So the Internet went up in flames last week over Ben Carson's insertion of slaves into the American immigrant narrative in his first speech as Secretary of Housing and Human Development. Apparently, after speaking of the work ethic of immigrants in general, Carson said, "There were other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less, but they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land."

As it turns out, President Obama made basically the same comparison, if in a somewhat more nuanced way. But, of course, Obama might be wrong as well. Indeed, I think that both Obama and (more blatantly) Carson are wrong. But not because they refer to slaves as "immigrants." Clearly slaves were among the many people who came to what is now the United States from some other part of the world. So why the outrage over Dr. Carson's claim?

In context, Carson seems to have been praising the work ethic of immigrants, and of course that is a grotesque context in which to mention slavery, as if slaves were simply an extreme example of people who were willing to undergo great hardship and work hard in order to make a better life for themselves and their families. But obscene as such a suggestion is, focusing on Carson's poor choice of wording misses the bigger point made (unintentionally) by his remark. 


People are reacting so strongly to Carson's use of the word "immigrants" because the term is not, for most Americans, a neutral description of "people who move from one place to another." It is a sacred word, a ritual evocation of one of the key pillars of the secular religion called American nationalism.

The orthodox American narrative holds that this country was built by people who came here seeking a better life--tough, independent, resourceful pioneers who "beat a thoroughfare for freedom" (across the bodies of native people, of course) and created a society that values initiative, self-sufficiency, and hard work. There are conservative and liberal versions of this narrative. The conservative version emphasizes the virtue of the "good" immigrants and judge both immigrants and native-born Americans when they fail to reach the standard. The liberal version emphasizes the generosity of American society in giving immigrants a chance, and expects contemporary native-born Americans to live up to that standard. The "slaves as immigrants" remarks of Carson and Obama, respectively, represent these two different versions of the immigration narrative.

But the narrative as a whole founders on the fact that slaves were immigrants. Both Carson and Obama try to weave slaves into the orthodox immigration narrative. Carson does it more clumsily, and Obama more subtly. But neither attempt works. Slaves did not come here looking for a better life. They were forced to come here by people seeking to exploit them. Yes, of course they sought a better life for themselves once they were here. Yes, many African-Americans came to believe in American ideals of liberty and democracy, and held white Americans accountable for the flagrant way in which they violated their own professed ideals. (Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" is the most obvious example, and Frederick Douglass' "What to a slave is the Fourth of July" speech is even more striking in the way it combines endorsement of American ideals with scathing condemnation of the way white Americans failed to live up to those ideals.) But they can't be shoehorned into a story about immigrants "seeking a better life for themselves" in a "land of opportunity. For African slaves, America was a land of horror and exile, not a land of opportunity. Any immigration narrative that doesn't acknowledge this is a lie.

The flip side of "slaves were immigrants" is "many immigrants were slaves."  If we take that sentence seriously, then the entire American narrative about immigration will have to be rewritten, or even discarded. Rewriting the immigration narrative to include slaves doesn't jam together two quite different things. Rather, it reveals what a pious fraud the orthodox narrative always was. After all, slaves are only the most obvious exception to that narrative.  Immigrants came to North America for all kinds of reasons. Some were seeking economic opportunity. Some were seeking religious freedom. Some were seeking simple survival--the Irish refugees fleeing the potato famine, for instance. Some were seeking a laboratory to explore radical political or religious ideas. Some were murderers or rapists or other criminals fleeing justice or seeking a new start in a country where their past was unknown. And yes, many of them came in chains, on slave ships, not seeking anything but hoping desperately, somehow, to survive.

A true narrative about American immigration must take all of these categories into account, as well as the who came thousands of years ago and whose prior claim was violently set aside by later waves of immigrants. The "orthodox" narrative is not just historically native--it is actively pernicious in the way it affects Americans' attitudes to immigrants today. Current waves of immigrants, such as Latin American "illegals" or Syrian or Somali refugees, are judged against an ideal standard and found wanting. "Real" immigrants are resourceful would-be entrepreneurs who seek a better life for themselves rather than desperate people forced to come here by war or famine in their homelands. "Real" immigrants are ideologically committed to American principles before they set foot here. "Real" immigrants assimilate. And so on. Over and over again I've seen people recite piously the narrative of American generosity to immigrants as an excuse for being less than generous to the immigrants actually under consideration. Simply repeating the "nation of immigrants" cliche, while true, is futile in countering this narrative, because it leaves untouched the assumption that the heirs of former immigrants have the right to stand in judgment on later immigrants, only urging them to do so generously. Since conservatives are convinced that they are already unbelievably generous, this appeal is in vain.

The fact that slaves were immigrants blows this assumption sky high.

Since slaves were immigrants, the heirs of the enslavers have no moral standing to judge later immigrants.

Since slaves were immigrants, appeals to the sacredness of immigration law are grotesquely hypocritical.

Since slaves were immigrants, torn from pagan or Muslim cultures, sold to Christian masters, and eventually tossed the Gospel as a pacifier, white Christian Americans have no business fretting about the supposed danger of Muslim immigration.

When we hear reports of families torn apart, of "illegals" being rounded up and shackled and penned in holding facilities, we have no right to say smugly, "well, that's what they get for breaking the law." We should rather hear the terrible echoes of what our ancestors once did to black "immigrants," and we should tremble and repent.

Recognizing the moral burden placed on us, as white residents of North America, by the misdeeds of white Americans in the past does not mean that we walk around oppressed with guilt. It does not mean that we deny the parts of the orthodox narrative that are true. There is much that is noble and inspiring in the story of immigrants coming to America. There is much that is beautiful and heroic in American history as a whole. By all means tell those stories and live in the light of those ideals. But don't construct a triumphalist narrative denying the horror and injustice that are also part of the story.  And don't approach contemporary issues as if that narrative gave you the moral high ground. We are much more likely to act justly if we start from a position of honesty and humility.

Dr. Carson's remarks were indeed obscene. Not because he said that slaves were immigrants, but because he refused to acknowledge how devastating that fact is to the narrative of immigration he was trying to promote.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Nazism and Christianity: a reply to Danusha Goska

John Guzlowski kindly invited me to respond to Danusha Goska's essay on the relationship of Nazism and Christianity on his blog. You can read my response here. It's overly long and a bit laborious due to my desire not to leave any point unanswered. Here's the last paragraph:


I don't actually think that Danusha and I fundamentally disagree about the nature of Nazism. I think we disagree much more about how we should speak, as Christian scholars, about the role of Christianity in history. Danusha ends by saying that the Christians who ended the slave trade, led the movement for women's suffrage, blew the whistle on the sexual abuse crisis, and rescued Jews from Nazis deserve "nothing less than the truth." I agree. But similarly, the many people who have suffered in body, mind, and spirit from Christians' failure to live up to the truths of our holy faith deserve nothing less than a rigorous admission of these failures on our part, without excuses. Christians as a whole have, over a period of centuries, failed miserably in loving our Jewish neighbors. Perhaps exactly the same things would have happened if Europe had been pagan or Islamic or Buddhist for a thousand years. But it wasn't. It was Christian. And we must take responsibility for that.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

John McCain is right

when he warns that calling the media the "enemy" is "how dictators get started."

I hear so many people following President Trump's lead in labeling the "mainstream media" as "fake news." Mistrust of the media has built for a while, and Trump has fed on it and nourished it in turn.

And there are good reasons to mistrust the media. They are made up of human beings as prone to error and bias as anyone else, though hopefully with training that will help them detect and control their bias and avoid glaring errors. Sometimes they make errors anyway. Sometimes reporters are deliberately dishonest.

But the role of the media in a free society is to be a counterbalance to political power. The "mainstream" media were certainly open to criticism under Obama, because they did cut him far too much slack. But on principle, no matter the relative positions of the President and the media, one should be slow to dismiss media stories critical of any U.S. President. And if they go against one's own bias, one should take them particularly seriously.

These are just basic, non-political rules for how to avoid being any more deluded than we have to be. Truth is hard. We make it unnecessarily hard for ourselves if we dismiss stories that don't suit our bias or have negative implications for someone we admire. And maintaining a just and free society is hard. We make it unnecessarily hard for ourselves if we try to silence or render irrelevant dissenting voices that pose a challenge to the most powerful person in the world, no matter who happens to be playing that role at the moment.

This is also why I am suspicious of "pro-business" government policies. It's not that I think the government is necessarily purer than business. It's that business and government are _both_ extremely powerful. I don't want them working together. I want them checking each other.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Wrath of the Lamb: Why the NT is not necessarily "non-violent"

In comparative discussions of violence in Christianity and Islam, one often hears the argument that the New Testament specifically is non-violent, whereas the Qur'an contains many injunctions to violence. This of course has the benefit of side-stepping the difficult question of how we compare the undoubtedly violent parts of the Old Testament to the Qur'an. On the negative side, it seems to imply that the OT is irrelevant for Christians, which obviously is not the case in orthodox Christianity. (Denial of the divine inspiration and relevance of the Old Testament is called "Marcionism," and is one of the oldest heresies.) Of course people who make this appeal don't generally mean that the OT doesn't matter at all, and of course there are all kinds of debates within historic, orthodox Christianity about just how authoritative the OT is and how it should be interpreted. But for now, let's accept the challenge and leave the Old Testament out of the picture.

Comparing the New Testament to the Qur'an, the obvious difference is that the later sections of the Qur'an are addressed to a community of people possessing political power and engaged in warfare, while the entire NT was written long before Christians had the capacity to wage war. We shouldn't assume too quickly that this was simply a matter of necessity. The Gospel of John describes Jesus refusing efforts by the crowd to crown him as a king. Whether or not that account is historically accurate, I think it's fair to say that Jesus could have taken the path of so many other would-be Messiahs in seeking to bring in God's kingdom by military means, but chose not to. That being said, the early Christians who wrote the NT in the form we have it were hardly in the same position as the Islamic community at Medina. And the fact that the NT was written by people who did not have political power has always made it a tricky guide for Christians who did have such power. Unless Christians are willing to renounce political and military power altogether (i.e., a strict Anabaptist position) we need to be wary of claiming spiritual superiority based on the nonviolent nature of the New Testament's injunctions.

The New Testament does, however, repeatedly use apocalyptic language--colorful descriptions of a final, world-shaking confrontation between good and evil in which God's kingdom would be established. There's a lot of debate, of course, about what first-century Jews would have thought this language meant. N. T. Wright argues for a highly metaphorical meaning of the language, but this doesn't necessarily mean "spiritualized." In fact, he and many other scholars would point out that Jewish contemporaries of the first Christians routinely used metaphorical "cosmic" language to refer to very this-worldly events they expected to take place--a literal war against the wicked in which a literal kingdom would be established on earth. (And other scholars think that Wright has overstated the metaphorical nature of the cosmic language, arguing that writers and readers of apocalyptic really did expect the stars to fall from the sky and so on.) Even today, many Christians interpret apocalyptic language as describing quite literally events that will happen in our future (see the Left Behind books, for instance). One of Wright's mistakes in his criticisms of American dispensationalism, in fact, is his claim that this is a spiritualizing of the faith, when in certain respects it's a very concrete, this-worldly vision of the End.

All of this is to say that the apocalyptic language we find in the NT can be applied in a diversity of ways to the "this-worldly" situations Christians find themselves in. And that's relevant, because this language is vividly, brutally violent. Here are some examples:

In Matthew 3: 11-12, John the Baptist says that Jesus will "burn up the chaff [the wicked] with unquenchable fire."

Similarly, Matthew 13:40-42 interprets the parable of the weeds in the field to mean that the "Son of Man" will send out his messengers ("angeloi"--yes, this presumably refers to supernatural heavenly beings, but to grasp the force of the passage in Greek the more generic meaning should be heard as well) who will weed the wicked out of the world and burn them in a fiery furnace. 49-50 repeat this language in the context of the parable of the net.

Matt. 22:7 describes the king (clearly representing God) sending out an army to destroy "those murderers" (who had mistreated his servants) and to "burn their city." This most likely refers, in its immediate context, to the very this-worldly event of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Matt. 24, of course, uses apocalyptic language to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the "coming of the Son of Man." And in that context, the parable of the sheep and the goats in 25:31-64 once again uses language of fiery punishment to describe the judgment of the wicked.

Luke 19:27, in the "parable of the pounds" (Luke's version of Matthew's "parable of the talents") has the king say of his enemies who had opposed his kingship, "bring them here and slay them before me."

Romans 1-2 describe God's judgment on the wicked. 1:32 got a lot of attention a few months ago when the NYT ran an article interpreting it as saying that homosexuals should be killed. Of course, the verse does not simply refer back to the "shameful lusts" passage in 26-27, and the "death" in question might be "spiritual death." But the passage could quite easily be taken as a justification for the imposition of the death penalty on those whom Christians see as wrongdoers, including (but not limited to) those described in 26-27.

2 Thess. 1:8 speaks of Jesus coming "with blazing fire" to "take vengeance" on those who "do not know God" or obey the Gospel.

2 Peter 2:4-9 (mirrored by Jude) again speaks of God's vengeance, connecting the punishment of the fallen angels, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the punishment awaiting the wicked on the day of judgment. 10-12 goes on to speak of those who "despise authority," describing them as being like animals made to be caught and destroyed. (Imagine how much fun Christians would have with a passage like this if it were in the Qur'an. We'd see claims like, "The Qur'an says that anyone who doesn't submit to Muhammad is an animal and should be killed!")

And this is all before we even get to the book of Revelation, with death and destruction on every page, Jesus as a conqueror on a white horse slaughtering his enemies until blood comes up to the bridles of the horses (chap. 19), and the final torture in the lake of fire of all those not "written in the book of life."

Of course none of these passages were commands to first-century Christians to go out and kill their enemies. But too often Christians are content to say this without thinking through the implications of what the NT does say. Here are some things that we might expect Christians shaped by these passages would believe, and which many Christians throughout history have in fact believed:

1. God's character is expressed, at least in part, through taking vengeance on his enemies in the same way that an earthly king would do--slaughtering them in war, executing them, torturing them, burning their cities, and so on.

2. God uses messengers and agents to carry out this vengeance. These may be supernatural beings ("angels") or earthly armies (as in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem). In the broader context of the Biblical narrative, it's clear that some of God's instruments may be evil. Nonetheless, one would not gather from these passages that being an instrument of God's vengeance on his enemies is incompatible with being a righteous and holy servant of God.

3. The nonviolence enjoined on Christians in the "present age" is therefore shot through with the eager expectation of the "blessed hope" of God's coming judgment. Romans 12:19 urges Christians not to avenge themselves, in order to "leave room for God's wrath" (at least according to most modern translations--the Greek simply says "wrath," so it could be read as "give way to the unrighteous wrath of the wicked and don't fight back"). For God has said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." This is in fact the attitude that Christians in the first three centuries took over and over, gloating about the future punishment of the wicked while practicing nonviolence here and now. And I think it's no concidence that Paul goes on, in the beginning of Romans 13, to speak of earthly powers "bearing the sword" by God's authority to punish the wicked. The "vengeance" which belongs to God has been, according to Scripture, entrusted to earthly authorities--not to Christians as such, but to the rulers entrusted with maintaining justice by punishing evildoers on God's behalf.


In light of these considerations, what would we expect Christians to do once they did have power? Would they not be quite likely to conclude that God's kingdom had come and that the time for vengeance on the wicked was here? And in fact at least some of them did conclude this. Eusebius referred to Constantine's reign as an image of God's kingdom, and praised Constantine's war-making as a means by which God was establishing peace and order in the earth. And the long history of Christians justifying and even sometimes encouraging violence in God's name went on from there.

Yes, this story has always been qualified. Yes, there are many passages in the NT that speak of love and mercy and forgiveness, and these cannot simply be swept aside by saying that early Christians were just tactically practicing nonviolence in the expectation of God's vengeance. I am emphasizing the passages that can be read to support violence, because Christians so often speak as if no such passages exist in the NT.

Of course Eusebius' eschatology was not universal and was perhaps not even typical. Quite quickly Christians realized that the Christianized Empire was not God's Kingdom. In the West, Augustine's City of God heavily qualified Christian acceptance of Empire. In the East, bishops and (more often) monks often held up the ideals of God's peaceable kingdom against the worldly kingdom of the Empire.

But the case I'm making here is a deliberately one-sided one: not that the NT, read overall in a theologically thoughtful way, supports violence, but that historic Christian violence cannot simply be swept aside as an obvious rejection or misunderstanding of the New Testament. When the Crusaders slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 1099, they saw themselves as purifying God's city from defilement in an apocalyptic act of judgment. They were not simply medieval soldiers who got out of control (though they were that too)--they thought that in this particular case their violent behavior was righteous, in part because of the resonance of what they were doing with New Testament (not just Old Testament) language. Similarly with the Crusaders who sacked Beziers in 1209, the Catholic authorities who burned Protestants at the stake in the sixteenth century, the Calvinist mobs who sacked convents, the English Protestant government that ripped out the intestines of Catholics for the crime of going to Mass, and so on.

These passages of Scripture continue to be used to justify violent words and actions today. Jeff Sharlet claimed in 2009 that American soldiers in Iraq sprayed "Jesus killed Mohammed" on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and had an interpreter shout the slogan as they drove through the streets of Samarra during the Islamic call to prayer. Better known are the remarks of General William G. ("Jerry") Boykin that "my God was bigger than his" (referring to a Muslim warlord in Somalia). More recently, working for the Family Research Council, Boykin has said that Jesus is coming back with an assault rifle (since that's the modern equivalent of a sword) and therefore Christians should buy assault rifles. (To be fair, Boykin clarifies that Christians are not to "build the kingdom" with guns, but that fighting will be incidentally necessary as part of the work necessary to build the kingdom.)

The combination of apocalyptic violence and belief in the divinely ordained authority of earthly governments means that Christians have persistently, over the centuries, seen political power as an invitation to use violence against the perceived enemies of God. This has been construed and nuanced in many sophisticated ways, and it has always stood in tension with the non-violent elements of the Christian tradition that we would all rather talk about. But we must talk about all of it. We must be honest about the whole of our tradition and the multiple ways in which the many voices of Scripture can be harmonized with each other.

We should try living out Jesus' command to love our enemies instead of using it as a badge of superiority to other religions. Instead of arguing that Christians are more nonviolent than Muslims, we should be nonviolent. And above all, we should not play the game of "our violence is not as bad as their violence" in order to justify our violence.

If my reading of Scripture is correct, then when we as Christians fall into this trap, using Jesus as a badge of superiority instead of following his choice to renounce superiority, we become those enemies of God on whom God's judgment falls. The violent parts of the New Testament should not be renounced or treated with embarrassment. They should be read humbly and with godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire, taking vengeance on those who take his name in vain.