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The only proper place for pacifism

Many in the Spectrum community really seek to understand how best to reconcile their ideals of conscientious objection with the contemporary realities of humanitarian and/or corporatist military intervention. Recently Arlyn raised some questions and Bob Rigsby has taken up the challenge. Although these usually happen in the comment threads, Bob has spent the weekend honing his thinking on the topic connecting the larger issue of redemptive violence to pacifism. Let them know what you think.
By Bob Rigsby, a Seventh-day Adventist anesthesiologist who grew up in Ethiopia as the son of a missionary doctor, and now lives in Altamonte Springs, Florida.
This is a huge topic with lots of corollary ideas, and still being formed in my mind. Here goes…
Some things seem undeniable. We live in a violent world; problems are solved with violence. This happens on a personal level, and a national/international level. It is easy to reflexively call violence evil. We instantly recognize that something is amiss when we see violence. Be it verbal, institutional, emotional, physical. At the same time, we realize instinctively and through history, that there is a type of evil which does not learn; it does not change; it does not repent. And perhaps it can not repent — though I resist this idea.
This evil is not evil “lite” — examples might be the evil against which MLK spoke — and Christ too. The evil which can be “shamed” into change. The non-violent “acts” of turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, giving the cloak also, and silently shaming a “Christian” nation into recognition that blacks are also created in the image of God, all are designed to allow the victims of violence (oppression) to retain their dignity, not passively submit, and call to change to better values. These acts are a call to higher moral ground. They offer time and context, and are the hope for transformation of the enemy’s heart.
But some evils will not be “called” to anything but more violence. For ultimate evil knows no self restraint. It only knows self-justification. We know this intuitively. A good man (who is a pacifist; unwilling to use violence for any reason) goes into a locked room with an evil man who (the reasons he acts this way a fascinating aside) who has no moral qualms about using force to achieve his purposes, and it is certain — 100% percent of the time — that only the evil man will emerge. Baring external interventions, this is easily predictable. Predictable too — and we often find this jarring — is that the evil man will have come up with some very good and convincing “reasons” for his actions! He emerges actually believing he is “justified” in his violence!
This is no idle mental exercise. It’s already happened in history. God (whom I will try to sustain as the perfect pacifist) enters the locked room of this evil earth and, given His priorities, didn’t stand a chance. He killed — and true to form, His killers imagined they had thereby accomplished a certain “good”.
Jump to another train of thought; the various theories of the Atonement. Most Christians have embraced the violence of the cross in ways that implicitly accept — maybe even rejoice in — violence. Good violence. God’s violence. This, in my opinion, mirrors our human (and profoundly fallen) conviction that in fact there are certain kinds of violence which are “good” — so good in fact that this violence actually “saves” us! And if you believe in the saving violence of God, in Christ, you will take great and holy meaning from it and it will be celebrated. (Just watch Gibson’s “Passion…” to see what I mean) It will be celebrated and mimicked.
In short, we humans have largely bought — deeply and completely — into what Wink (and others) calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence. The “right” violence, against the “right” people, in the “right” circumstances, is not only justified, but it will save us! It is more ingrained in us that we comprehend, I believe.
Well, what about it? Does God ultimately solve His problems with violence? This is a long story in and of itself for me, but I’ve concluded that He does not. It is totally foreign to His nature. All manner of other ideas — each betraying the bias (again, my take) of fallen humans — find little niches for “useful” violence. Ideas like punishment, discipline, judgment, and yes, justice. You do X (bad thing) and justice insists you be disciplined and punished. At this point it gets horribly confused and conflated as we bring in ideas of “law” and since God is equated with His “law” somehow He becomes wrapped up in all this violence as solution.
And so we partake of the system of command and punishment for misbehavior. We console ourselves it is punishment with a “purpose”. We will enforce goodness (with all it’s attendant usefulness to our community at large) with violence. But the reliance on the motives of fear, deterrence, force, pain, to accomplish common “good” is troubling. Sure there are temporary and visible advantages; we’re safer. In time however, I’ve become convinced that God’s ultimate solution involves neither fear, nor force, nor coercion, nor punishment, and consequently no violence. For what God really wants can in no way be gained by those things. In fact, those things produce the exact opposite of what He desires. (The savage and absurd irony of “beating the ‘hell’ out of somebody” comes to mind. In reality, hell is beat in.) He will not, now or ever, be satisfied with a love born of force and fear. (This truth didn’t become real for me until I had read so called “Feminist” and “Liberation” theologies… Theologies uniquely qualified to discern the absurdity of associating Love with violence.) For the love upon which His entire Government and Universe are founded is freely given; it is drawn out — we are wooed to it; it cannot and will not be forced. We must choose God’s system as free, individual, moral beings.
This stands as the ideal then; the city of God, there on the mount ahead and above us to which we march. Yet we are not “there”, we are here, in our earthly kingdoms and systems. Flawed, fallen, and fearful. It is my firm conviction that one cannot even begin to contemplate the rightful place for pacifism until he has come to the knowledge that violence itself has no place in God’s ultimate plan. It’s that simple. But from where we stand in our earthly “prison” we imagine it is very complex. And the complexity multiplies as we discover new reasons and ways to smuggle in “necessary” violence in the service of “good”. And when we try to shroud and bless this violence in the name of “Love” it only gets worse. Yet, if we cannot imagine that shining ideal of God’s true kingdom of nonviolence, it’s unlikely we will ever find a proper understanding of pacifism. (As an aside, Elaine and Arlyn, my eventual embrace of God’s Universal salvation, seemed a logical consequence of a God who eschews all violence.)
No small amount of soul-searching results as we find ourselves both captive to our dependence on systems of violence for our sense of security, while at the same time puzzle at Christ’s insistence that His kingdom was already here; it has broken in to this darkened room filled with evil. The tension we find between these kingdoms is seen and felt at all levels of experience. We see ideals, and goals, yet seem powerless somehow to live Kingdom values in earthly kingdoms.
And so we imagine — and list — all manner of reasonable places for violence (in all it’s forms). We discipline the immature, (think children) using force, to achieve desired behaviors. We see the desirable effects of sensible laws (think the command not to kill; or not to speed) and so tolerate the “enforcement” of those things. We see that here in this realm, certain “good” can in fact be accomplished through selective violence. It is easy to see the “good” in protecting the lives of my family — by killing with violence the intruder into my home. It is undeniably “good” that the horror of the Atom bombs in Japan hastened the end of the war (ending war; surely a “good”) and resulted in the saving of many more lives than those lost to the bombs themselves. A “bad” thing necessitated by the “good” which results.
But this is not the calculus of the kingdom of God; it is our own. That very moment we allow the motive of fear and force to serve our goal of love, we have become severed from the true Kingdom. Enlisting violence, in any of its forms, in the service of love, betrays the true Kingdom. The WAY of the cross could not be clearer; yet we resist (for what seem to us, in our humanness and fears, good reasons) it’s final destination. Death. In the great confrontation between kingdoms, death is the result of the one who participates in God’s Kingdom values. There is no way to sugar coat this reality. Christ showed us that.
Attempts to avoid and temper this stark truth of Christ’s cross results in strains, species, and variations of pacifism. But for every variation we imagine, we enable a departure from the only sort of pacifism deserving of God’s name. Pacifism thus laden with conditions, contingencies, and qualifiers, is a pinnacle of fallen man’s hubris and arrogance. (Due respect for John Howard Yoder’s “Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism” noted earlier by Alex on this blog.) For a pacifism thus adulterated with human pragmatism, wise as it may seem to us at the time, is worse than a neutering of the Kingdom; it is thus destroyed. Such dilutions to the Kingdom of God can not, and will not prevail, ultimately.
That is the goal; that is the Beacon which both calls us and guides us. The ways we fall short of this high calling are many; too many to count. Yet there hangs the Christ — urging us to live inthat very Kingdom. Freely, and without compromise — pragmatic as such pragmatism may seem. The calling could not be higher; this distance we feel from it can be discouraging. But there it stands.
Two realities (for starters) can form the basis for our actions toward this goal. First, they must be freely chosen, and second they must be chosen by individuals — not groups. This seems, to me, axiomatic. That all choices made in the Kingdom must be free and made by individual minds is surely foundational. Again, the cross. Christ chose it with full awareness of what He was doing. Not commanded, not forced,  but chosen freely. Further, not even Christ Himself can make the choice for us; we chose it ourselves. Thus Christ faced the cross alone. His choice was His own — He will not make that choice for the group. Years later, His followers made similar choices in the full knowledge of the meaning of what they were choosing. Freely. Individually.
As an example of the implications for my personal life, I can consider my attitudes and understanding of violence, enacted by me, in “defense” of my home; my family; my “castle”. I have, for some years now, believed that, given all the unpleasant choices, my best, most “moral” choice is to be willing — and possess the means and ability — to kill that intruder who threatens my family. I have seen that not to do so would be, in effect, to participate in their deadly harm. Were I to adopt a policy of pacifism, it would force my moral choice upon my family — who have not made that choice for themselves.  But the day comes when my children are grown, mature adults; they make the personal choice for pacifism then.
For myself, my own paradigm is slowly shifting. Hard as it is for me, I’m beginning to see that this moral calculus is my own; it is of this world. Had I faith enough (in God’s promised resurrection, for example) and absence of fear ( can I really, willingly and freely, let the intruder kill me? — Trusting my life will be restored; just as Christ’s was?) it seems that I have the support system to make that hard choice.
Some comparisons exist with nations who wage war. Suggesting nations adopt a policy of pacifism (the total — indeed only meaningful — version) seems inappropriate. Each individual of that nation, it seems to me, must chose that option for himself — given the high stakes inherent with pacifism, (i.e., it may well kill you). However, if one imagines a nation with a high percentage of citizens who have made that very choice, and have openly elected leaders who explicitly ran on that platform, that is a very different (and in my view) unlikely scenario. (And of course could never happen with an Adventist running; believing in separation as we do.)
That said, there really is a body of people who can, and according to Christ’s witness (my take), should have real basis to make that very choice; it is the Christian church. Imagine if such principled pacifism achieved large adherence. (By principled, I mean undiluted with “exceptions”.) Might they not be scorned, ridiculed, and even blamed for all the evil and wars about them? I have often wondered if the eschatology of the Adventism I grew up with actually applies to all those who chose, under Kingdom of God principles, to observe the true Sabbath peace God offers. And their resulting pacifism marks them as the enemy. With great passion and righteous indignation, they are scapegoated as the real cause of conflicts (after all, they are utterly unwilling to solve the problems of obvious evil with what “everybody knows” to be the proper solution) and attempts are made against them with the very force these pacifists abhor. It is only then, when the commitment of God’s true church to His ways of pacifism is total, completely freely chosen, and obvious, that God intervenes and offers divine protection. This only serves to infuriate those who have come to trust in earthly means of violence in the service of God. And the ultimate irrationality of violence as solution to anything in God’s Kingdom becomes plain to all.
Well, all manner of implications and questions can arise from this line of thinking.
To the narrower question (Arlyn’s) of the usefulness of the metaphor of the violence of surgery being likened to certain violence being acceptable in the cause of a greater good… It can be a useful metaphor, but it is limited. The very need for surgery is a glaring reminder of our fallen state. This is not how God created us. And surgery must be chosen freely — by individuals. (So must pacifism — one of my main contentions  here.) However, the realization that all our surgery, well intentioned as it is, is ultimately futile (for all our patients die eventually) serves to emphasize that earthly kingdom solutions which rely on violence, obvious as the “good” may be, are only temporary. Only God’s Kingdom offers the permanent solution.
Thanks Arlyn for your thought provoking questions!

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