Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Another Letter

Today's letter was from P Borgdorff, Ex. Dir. of the Christian Reformed Church based in Kalamazoo, MI, USA. It was a personal letter, one that seemed to wrestle with my questions (see previous posts).

Although he stated firmly that his church was "officially committed to the 'just war' position," I was fascinated that he preceded this statement with another that stated that "we live in a sinful and broken world, and it is unrealistic to make generalized statements [i.e., that war is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus] that do not take into account the complexities of our world."

There is a leap of logic (or faith?), a chasm of difference, between these two ideas. The two statements together seem to suggest that the 'just war' idea is part of human sinfulness. Because we are sinful, we end up creating wars, and so as a result, we are obliged to participate in them. Sort of we make our bed, so we must lie in it. But I wonder if this juxtaposition reveals a subconscious awareness that the 'just war' is not so just after all. It suggests to me that perhaps there is within conservative churches a discomforting awareness that the 'just war' idea belongs in the box marked SIN.

He goes on to state that "we believe that the state has been given the power of the sword, and as such, must wage war against tyranny and is obligated to protect its citizenry." Here is the not-so-subtle jihadi sentiment that runs like an eerie thread through much of conservative Christianity. We in the West believe that our wars are just, that we are fighting tyranny. Every war we have entered, God has been on our side. And like us, the Muslim insurgents believe their war is just too and that they are fighting tyranny. Allah is on their side.

Everyone believes that their war is just. Everyone believes that their enemies are tyrants. Nobody ever stands up and says, "All right, all right! We give up. You're right -- we're the tyrants. Your war against us is quite fair." I mean, nobody does this.

That's why there is war. War is about two sides each thinking they are right and the other is wrong. It's about miscommunication, misunderstanding, suspicion, fear. The truth is that neither side is right, especially at the instant they pick up weapons. And I suspect most people realize that too, but they hate to admit it. Who wants to admit that we in the West are tyrants? That we treat the rest of the world unjustly? That our wars are about exploitation of others for our own purposes? That maybe the jihadis have a point? -- or had one, that is, till they picked up weapons too.

Why do so few people see that?

My husband and I argue about this from time to time. He says war stopped the Nazis.

I respond, "But did it stop Naziism?"


He counters: "It stopped Hitler."

"Did it?" I ask. "Why then, whenever we see another dictator do we say he's another Hitler? We say Saddam Hussein was a Hitler. We say Somoza was a Hitler. Idi Amin was a Hitler. Pol Pot is a Hitler. If war stopped Hitler, then why does he keep coming back?"

Because you can't kill the devil with a gun or a sword. It comes back, again and again, in different forms and by different names. But it always comes back -- because it is not defeated. To defeat the devil, you must disarm it, subdue it. Then there will be no more Hitler.

Hitler is not a person, and Naziism is not a historical political movement. They are both paths. Both Hitler and the Nazis believed they were right and just in what they were doing. They chose violence as a means of ending the oppression of their people after the cruelty of the previous war; and once they did, they placed themselves firmly in the hands of the one who delights in evil. Whoever chooses violence does the same, regardless of their goals.

I mused for a while: if I were to respond to Peter Borgdorff's letter, what kind of letter would I write? I think it would be a story of some kind, a fable about Hitlers and Nazis and just wars and jihadis. It would show that justice looks different depending where you stand. It would show how all sides all read from the same script when they justify harming each other.

But responding to the responses to my original letters was not my original intention. The task I had set out to do was simply to sow seeds. And perhaps I did with P Borgdorff. For he ended his letter: "But I will further reflect on your point in the days ahead."

That's good enough for me.


At 11:12 AM, Blogger Richard said...

Life should be a simple case of black and white: moral, immoral, or indifferent.

Unfortunately, people makes bad choices, evil choices, immoral choices, this has cascading effects which then turns black and white morality into a grey morass.

I can see arguments for a just war, but I don’t see any just wars at the moment – though I certainly see a lot of injustice.

Part of the problem is that you cannot have a just war if the participants are unjust.

In Iraq a brutal dictator was overthrown and the result? Rejoicing? Yes, because now all those people who were being repressed could come out and start killing others – something they were prevented from doing under Saddam Hussein. Afghanistan, was the Taliban brutally fundamentalist? Yes. Any more so than Saudi Arabia? Not really. Once out of the way, the warlords return.

It is a sad fact that humans seem to instinctively cluster into small tribal units that wage war against one another. If you want a view of how the ancient Jews lived, you need look no farther than Afghanistan and its warlords.

Can a war be just? Yes – if it is to fight against evil. Not a fight against race, or creed, or language. Not a fight over land, or resources, or power. It must be free of prejudice, free of pride, free of hate. It must be a just anger against iniquity.

Will we ever have a just war? I doubt it. So, until then, we must ask ourselves, does this improve or harm? Does it benefit all or only a few? Or even the majority. If it is not in the benefit of all, then it is unjust.

On the other hand, we see the grave injustices being done in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Tibet – yet no righteousness has arisen to defend the innocent and reform the wiocked.

At 1:24 AM, Blogger john said...

Let me just start by saying that I think this conversation is very valuable, and I think that Christians and Quakers can learn a lot from it, especially as it opens up into historical honesty.

> "we believe that the state has been given the power of the sword, and as such, must wage war against tyranny and is obligated to protect its citizenry."

This view is a pretty orthodox interpretation of the first few verses of Romans Chapter 13, which came from the hand of Paul, who is historically the closest witness to Jesus that we have (we know that the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple complex in CE 70, a catastrophic event that radically transformed YHWH faith movements). It is a view explicitly affirmed by George Fox in the "cannonical" 1660 letter to Charles from which we trace the origins of our testimony against war:

> Therefore in love we warn you for your soul's good, not to wrong the innocent, nor the babes of Christ, which he hath in his hand, which he cares for as the apple of his eye; neither seek to destroy the heritage of God, nor turn your swords backward upon such as the law was not made for, i.e. the righteous; but for sinners and transgressors, to keep them down. [...]
> And whereas all manner of evil hath been falsely spoken of us, we hereby speak the plain truth of our hearts, to take away the occasion of that offense; that so being innocent, we may not suffer for other men's offenses, nor be made a prey of by the wills of men for that of which we were never guilty; but in the uprightness of our hearts we may, under the power ordained of God for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well live a peaceable and godly life, in all godliness and honesty.
(Emphases added)

Ten years later elections in the Rhode island colony produced a Quaker Governor, Deputy Governor, and a Quaker majority in the colonial assembly. In a sermon given during his visit to the colony in 1672, George Fox endorsed this state of affairs: "What an honor is it that Christ should be both Priest, Prophet, Minister, Shepherd & Bishop, Councellor (sic) Leader, & Captain & Prince in your Colony."

In 1675, an alliance of native groups launched a terror campain that eroded the community's moral bonds. The Quaker government is known to have "raised and dispatched soldiers, stored ammunition, transported troops... to battle, encouraged mobilization and training of local militias, deployed gunboats, manned an official garrison, ... and, at last, tried and executed prisoners of war." (Weddle 170)

No comment or complaint was raised by Fox, who wrote to the colony in 1677, shortly after the war's end. More of this fascinating story is outlined in Chuck Fager's essay "The Friends Peace Testimony Reconsidered."

While your points about ethnocentric or nationalist interpretations of these verses from Romans are important, it is significant that the Peace Testimony in Quaker history has not been a clear and straight path devoid of complexities, swerves, and struggle. It is my sense that that struggle is a faithful response to our experience of God's call, and that we must respect and care tenderly for all of those engaged in that struggle. It is much more idolotrous and morally fatal, in my oppinion, to consider our own position as settled, final, and beyond the complex realities of this world – "The invulnerable cannot love any more than the uncrucified can save." If we are to practice the Peaceable Kingdom as a way of life, the faithful community must focus on how to serve those who are not yet ready to lay down their swords and take up the cross.

With the guidance of God, and the resource of our prophetic heritage, the servant church must anticipate and innovate concrete alternatives to violence that enable all to live more faithfully to the covenant. It is my sense that this cannot be accomplished by laying demands on others, but by taking on their concerns – loving, serving, and healing our neighbors through direct human contact.

Thank you again for opening up this conversation with our prophetic heritage and history through your letters and through your pursuit of Truth here on the blog. It exposes our most tender places.

At 1:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The servant church link in the above post is broken. But that is corrected here.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Richard said...

john: It is not just Paul who helped to reinforce the notion of submission to authority.

Even Jesus said that we were to give to Caesar what was Caesar's.

And, at His trial, while undermining the absoluteness of Pilate's authority, does tell him "You have power over me because it was given to you from God".

Personally, I do not recognize temporal authority. The only authority I recognize is God's.

That said, I do recognize the coercive power temporal authorities have over me.

At 5:55 PM, Blogger Liz Opp said...

First off, Nancy: Wow.

I'm speechless.

Secondly: Thanks for thy continued faithfulness and witness.

I feel like I did when I was in elementary school. I knew then that war was wrong, that it led to no long-term solution. I yearn for someone, anyone, to please tell me how to start mending the world...

Liz, The Good Raised Up

At 7:20 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Everyone has been so generous with their time in responding. I've learned a lot from these posts.

One problem with the letters of Paul, as I recall from my university religion courses, is that some of them weren't written by Paul. These are called the pseudo-Pauline letters and were written by the early Church after Rome converted. The church was faced with the problem of becoming a state religion after being a pacifist, somewhat counter-cultural religious movement for so long. It had to accommodate to the new status by editing a little here and there.

Church scholars recognize that some of the letters of Paul were adulterated by the early Church to accommodate its new status as state religion. They just argue over which passages are legit and which aren't. Some of the passages about the duty to the state are among those believed to be later inclusions. However, it's been some 20 years since I took that religion course, so I can't remember what letters, what quotes, etc.

I admit I'm not a big fan of Paul. Sometimes I think he got into the bible to show us how *not* to read Christ's teachings. At other times, I think he got in to show us how even a self-righteous buffoon can receive grace (he did write a few very beautiful passages that show that somehow he got it). I guess in many ways Paul is like us -- very fallible, full of errors, a man of his times as we are of ours.

Paul is not the Christ, and I think if he were here, he would be the first to say so. Christ's teachings on the subject was to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek.

And it's the one thing we just have never tried. So we don't even know if it would work.

At 6:59 AM, Blogger david said...

What at first I took as ironic and funny I'm now seeing as foundation for some very important work.

I hope God blesses you in this.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Lorcan said...

Nancy, thy post speaks to my heart. I have seen a war, up close, in Belfast in the 70s... and I came to understand much better, as the years progressed, why there is no such thing as a just war.

We never fight wars for the reasons told to the poor fellows on the ground. The war in Ireland, was no more about Irish nationalism, or religion or any thing else obvious... it was about NATO keeping forces on a non-aligned nation's soil so that IF a war in Europe broke out, the US could use bases there, as we did, when the Soviet Union broke up, and the first Gulf War was launched from Shannon Airport, all of a sudden, the British found the could talk to the IRA, and the Loyalists became the enemy and the criminals.

As to World War Two. Those who say that it was a war against Hitler might consider the "Premature Anti Fascist", those American Reds who DID oppose Hitler, in Spain, and joined other armies, years before the US and Britain decided it was important to "stop" Hitler. After the war, they were persecuted here in the US. No effort was ever made through out the war to liberate a single death camp, unless it was overrun in the advance of the armies in due course. Then after the war, the persecution of Romany people has continued unabated. Today Romany people are being sterilized as part of a genocide throughout Eastern Europe and where are those who said we went to war to stop the evils of Nazism. The sad fact is, if wars where fought for the reasons given, we would live in a world which would likely talk rather than killing.

At 1:02 AM, Blogger john said...

About Paul:

There are a few separate issues here. The thing that pertains most to the original response to your letter doesn't have much to do with Paul, but more with the historical interpretation of four verses from Paul's letter to the assembly in Rome.

That interpretation is separate from the authenticity of Paul's letter, and from Paul's authenticity as a teacher of Christ's faithfulness.

Since the time of Constantine, these verses have been interpreted as referring directly to the duty of faithful individuals to submit to the State, which God endows with a sword to brandish against evildoers. It seems evident that your respondent shares this view, along with the further implications that wars waged by the State are blessed by scripture. What I was saying in my earlier post is that this view was explicitly affirmed by George Fox and the early Quakers.

I don't take that as the final word on the veracity of that interpretation, but I think that it is a historical reality that we have to recognise and engage. Through your respondent's letter these verses from Paul have become part of the discussion. Other interpretations are possible, and in order to respond faithfully to Mr. Borgdorff and Christians everywhere who share his view, to evoke that of God within him and be blessed by his faithfulness, Quakers should seek to understand the meaning and implications of Romans 13; it may be more than meets the eye.

You are right that the authorship of some of Paul's letters are disputed by scholars. Of the 14 Pauline letters preserved in the New Testament, about seven are regarded as authentic; the others are usually regarded as collections of authentic Pauline teachings parsed together by later disciples of Paul, with others being fabrications. I haven't read any scholars who include Romans on that list. If you can find any of your university texts that claim Romans comes from another hand, I would be very interested in pursuing that line of thought. Without looking at evidence in specific detail though, I would be reluctant to cave in to blanket suspicions.

You have also suggested that Paul's teaching at times contradicts the teaching of Christ found elsewhere in the New Testament. If that is what you are saying, you are strictly correct. When Paul wrote, there was no New Testament, no Christianity, no creeds, no Constantine, no ecclesiastical heirarchy, and no standardized Christian teaching. None of that work was even under way. Paul and Jesus lived within what was possibly the most diverse and innovative religious culture ever on earth, the Judah-centered YHWH faith of the Second Temple period, a vast and creative culture within which there were many, many movements, all oriented in some way to the Jerusalem Temple complex.

When the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by Rome in CE 70, that diversity was scattered, swept away, and swallowed up by a very few movements. The Two Main factions that emerged were Rabinical Judaism and Helenistic Christianity, both of which succeeded in creating a Temple religion without a Temple. For the Rabbi's the Temple was preserved as a Platonic Form which could be evoked by studying Torah and practicing mitzvah. For the Helenistic Church, Christ became the Platonic Form through whom the Temple sacrifice was fulfilled and sinners reconciled to God. The New Testament and its vision of Jesus were products of this movement, not its antecedents. (The co-opting of Christianity by the Empire that took place under Constantine didn't happen until 325 CE; this affected the texts that were included in the NT cannon, but they were already in wide circulation in their current form (with some important variations which are footnoted in any good Bible).)

In all of the vast and diverse YHWH faith, only one writer produced works during the critical period between the execution of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem that have come down to us: Shaul who took the name "Paulos," meaning "little." Pauls writings reflect a tremendous diversity of experience and practice within the Judah-centered Yeshua faith communities, and they also reflect Paul's own tremendous human struggle with the new Kingdom of God that he experienced breaking forth through the Resurrection of his Master. As a faithful Pharisee animated in his faith by his experience of Christ, he wrestled with the questions that were tearing his community apart, and he took decisive action. Sometimes he overstepped his divine guidance, but I think his writing is pretty transparent about that. Paul is more believable than the Gospels, I think, because he is so subject to the same human folly we are.

Which is good reason to listen with tender faithfulness to the struggling voices of other Christians as they wrestle with the role of violence in the new Kingdom. They are only subject to the same human folly we are, and we must be very cautious about laying demands on others that we are not ready to carry. Who among us wants to live in the state of civil war that would result if governments ceased to use the sword? I do not endorse the use of violence, but even Gandhi said that a violent response to injustice is better for those who have no faith in nonviolence than the comfort and complacency in which most of us live.

At 2:47 PM, Blogger Richard said...

Thanks for an interesting blog. I agree that there is a tendency for Just War theory to be an excuse for supporting churches being 'good citizens' and supporting their governments. That said I think one of the best ways to address the issue is to concretly challenge the credibility of a particular conflict being a Just War (cf John H Yoder's "Just War Tradition: Is it credible?" (available at

The pointis that if Just War theorist applied the theory more stringently then the world would maybe be a safer place or, at least, the Churches would be less prone to support strategies based on violence.

At 12:14 AM, Anonymous Latent said...

Quite honestly, I think the only way to really solve the problem all of you are talking about is to teach our children what goodness is all about. Teach them good and they will know wrong - and will not succumb to it. Instill a set a values that is lacking in this generation.

You can't stop war in the current generation. You're lucky to stop violence here and there. You have to look ahead and begin the arduous process of teaching those who will be our successors a mode of behavior different from our own.

Without that, I'm afraid no amount of debate will ever make a difference. You can stop one murder, one battle, and even one war - but if you don't change the behavioral model you haven't accomplished a thing.

At 12:15 AM, Anonymous Latent said...

PS - so get cracking.

At 12:29 AM, Blogger john said...

Latent said...
so get cracking.

You're right. Will you help?


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