Thursday, January 14, 2010

Temptation and Violence

on peace

"Into the merits of these idealizations it is not here necessary to inquire: suffice it to say, without prejudice, that they have convinced both Americans and English that the most high minded course for them to pursue is to kill as many of one another as possible, and that military operations to that effect are in full swing, morally supported by confident requests from the clergy of both sides for the blessing of God on their arms."

--Bernard Shaw, The Devil's Disciple

Philip Berrigan was imprisoned for his act of protest against the Vietnam War, and he explores some of his ideas in Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary. For Berrigan, the crime of war is directly connected to inequality, racism, wealth, and economics. He writes that

"A sober student will find it hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans have institutionalized war to maintain capitalist prosperity, and that institutionalized warmaking may now have a life of its own."

Berrigan opposes the Vietnam War as he opposes much American foreign policy because it is exploitative. What becomes clear, however, is that Berrigan is not opposed to violence because it is violence. When addressing problems in Latin America, Berrigan explicitly defends violent revolution: he does not take the stance that violence is against the will of God or the command of Christ:

"the Christian is neither for nor against violent revolution; he transcends such a choice by his dedication to a more basic change, the spiritual revolution commanded by Christ. On a given occasion, he may tolerate and approve--but not actively join--a violent revolution, having judged that political and social injustice had reached insufferable limits, without reasonable hope of redress."

Berrigan goes on to make other arguments defending the necessity of violent revolution (among other things, he claims that "the respect accorded life by revolutionaries is vastly superior to the contempt given it by tyrants," a rather dubious claim, further muddied by the reality that violent revolutionaries typically become the tyrants when they take power). Berrigan, then, is not opposed to violence itself. He opposes violence when he opposes the desired ends of the violence, but when he sees the cause as just, he supports violence. Because he thinks the cause of social justice is right and necessary, he is willing to support violence to achieve those ends.

But this is merely what Christian ministers have done for centuries. He chooses a side in a conflict that he thinks is right, and then defends that side's use of violence to achieve its ends. This is not "chaplaincy," where the Christian church works to defend and support the existing social order,* but it is still a Christian supporting violence because he sees its ends as just, righteous, and necessary.

In defending violent revolution, Berrigan diminishes the humanity of those whom the violence would be targeted against. How does violent revolution fit into the command to love and bless one's enemy? No matter how noble one perceives the cause to be, no matter how just the grievance, no matter how righteous the end, Christians are commanded to love our enemies.

In "A Declaration on Peace: In God's People the World's Renewal Has Begun," Gwyn, Hunsinger, Roop, and Yoder seem to speak directly to Berrigan's impulse:

"The royal servant people will resist temptations to the righteous crusase or holy war, whether defending democracy from the right or just revolution from the left. The church's sharing in God's favoring of the oppressed and exploited cannot partake of violence against the oppressor. That tactic finds no precendent in Jesus. It can at best achieve a trading of places between oppressor and oppressed, aggressor and victim."

Violent revolution, just like violent defense of the nation-state, is unchristian. It goes against the commands of Jesus, the unity of the church, and, I think, does not present a good witness of Christ to the world. Elsewhere in the book, Berrigan recognizes his need to love all people, and he most certainly acted on antiwar, nonviolent principles. I think Berrigan's defense of violent revolutions in Latin American demonstrates just how strong that "temptation to the righteous crusade or holy war" can be, of how "sharing in God's favoring of the oppressed and exploited" can tempt one to support any means to assuage the suffering of those oppressed and exploited.

Berrigan writes that the Christian's "sympathies lead him to identify with those afflicted enough and desperate enough to rebel." Indeed that is so, but the Christian must also resist the temptation of violence to aid those afflicted. In fact, in The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder understands Jesus himself to have resisted "the temptation to exercise social responsibility, in the interest of justified revolution, through the use of available violent methods," that he rejected the "genuinely attractive option of the crusade." Jesus was revolutionary, but nonviolence was central to his revolution.


*John Howard Yoder is in many of his writings quite critical of the role the church plays in nationalism. In The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, Yoder calls it "Constantinianism," where the church acts as "chaplain to society." Yoder suggests that since Constantine, the church has operated to sanctify and support the existing social order and power structure, whatever it may be in particular. Yoder suggests that the church needs to abstain from tying itself to the given social order, and that it is this close alliance with the given social order which leads the church too often to support wars (and wars that exist primarily to support the existing power structure of the particular society's self-interest) (the previous three sentences are reposted and revised from 8-14-07). In He Came Preaching Peace, he talks about

"the development of official Christianity (religion identified with the nation, with the state, with the world). [...] If Christianity is an official religion, it means that we can follow Jesus only by rejecting that kind of Christianity. We can call people to the Jesus Christ of the gospel only by calling them away from the "Christ" they already know--away from the official, conformist, power-related religion of the West."


"For Christians to seek any government's interest--even the security and power of peaceable and freedom-loving democracy--at the cost of the lives and security of our brothers and sisters around the world, would be selfishness and idolatry, however much glorified by patriotic preachers and poets."

I mention this here because Philip Berrigan seems to hold a similar view. Berrigan writes

"we embarrased the Church in terms of its own profession and rhetoric. Try as it might, the Church cannot entirely kill the Gospel or its Christ. It will always possess an inner dynamic rebelling against wedding with the powers of this world."

And his brother Daniel Berrigan writes in the introduction to the book,

"And what of the impact of the war upon the Church? Officially speaking, in the Catholic instance, the sacred power has quite simply followed the secular, its sedulous ape. Bishops have blessed the war, in word and in silence. They have supplied chaplains to the military as usual and have kept their eyes studiously averted from related questions--ROTC on Catholic campuses, military installations, diocesan investments."

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