Friday, April 11, 2014

Jesus's Example and The Attacker-at-the-Door in Sprinkle's Book "Fight"

This is the sixth post on Sprinkle's book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence.  Since I've already dealt systematically with what I take to be the major issues of the book, I now begin to finish off this series by turning to a few miscellaneous passages that have been overlooked thus far.

#1: Violence and Jesus's Example

Cruciform suffering takes center stage in 1 Peter 2.  We looked at this passage briefly in the previous chapter, but it's worth another read:
 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.  He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (vv. 21-22)
 If it weren't for Jesus, no one would ever live this way.  Jesus was attacked, beaten, and unjustly accused, but He didn't retaliate.  Jesus, of course, had to die to atone for sin.  But remember, His innocent suffering is also given as an example, and nowhere is this clearer than here in 1 Peter 2.  When we are reviled and suffer unjustly, our posture should reflect Jesus.  There's no need to return evil for evil, or violence for violence, since in the end God will vindicate us and judge our enemies (pp. 160-1).

Jesus became a servant to die for and at the hands of His enemies....Responding to violence with nonviolent love--even if it brings suffering.  These are not options, but he primary character traits of those who claim to follow a crucified God (p. 162).

Here is where I agree with Sprinkle: One shouldn't act with vengeance or try to get even.  We're to follow Jesus's steps in not sinning, deceiving, reviling, and threatening harm in return.  But WWJD is only so helpful.

As Sprinkle himself indicates, Jesus is unlike us in some ways, and thus we are not to follow his example in certain ways.  Jesus had a mission to die for our sins, but we can't atone for the sins of the world by dying.  Jesus didn't pray to God the Father asking Him to perform miracles--he simply performed miracles--but we are to pray to God to perform miracles.  Jesus walked on water; don't try that at home.  Jesus put up no resistance at all during his arrest, but in some circumstances it's perfectly fine to flee or resist arrest.  

#2:  Theory and the Attacker-at-the-Door Scenario

The attacker-at-the door question is often viewed as a theoretical situation in which there are two, and only two, choices: kill the killer or let him (it's always a man, right?) kill your family.  Oftentimes the question is posed in such a way as to trap people committed to nonviolence into admitting that they're either inconsistent or heartless.  I don't want to paint with too broad a brush, but in my experience, this question is often asked dismissively, as though the mere presentation of this one dilemma will expose the naivete of the nonviolence position and bypass the need to do any serious biblical thinking.  So I'm not going to consider this question from a theoretical standpoint, because life is not theoretical.  We live in the real world, where situations normally don't come down to only two options: to kill or let your family die (p. 217).

Now here is why I think the "attacker-at-the door" question is often invoked: it's to test whether pacifism is a correct ethical position.    The question is asked in order to consider whether there are some circumstances in which killing is permissible, which is a fair question to ask of someone claiming that it's never permissible.  And it is a theoretical question because pacifism is a moral position which advocates a pacifist theory.  It's a theory telling us what we should or shouldn't do if we find ourselves in such-and-such circumstances.  And there's nothing wrong with having an ethical theory or asking theoretical questions.  We have ethical theories so that when we're in circumstances where we do not have the time to think, we'll already have an idea about what the permissible and impermissible, just and unjust, good and evil courses of actions are.  Presumably that is why Sprinkle wrote the book "Fight."  He wrote it so that he and others would have a better idea about if and when it's permissible to act violently, and he comes down on the side which says that Christians should never act violently.  But what about the hard cases?  What about when someone is on a violent rampage and you happen to have a gun available and the opportunity to shoot the attacker? Is that a permissible option?  Is it OK to own a gun to use for such a situation?  Sprinkle seems to avoid a direct answer to the question.  When we get to this chapter he says that life isn't theoretical.  We usually have more than two options.  We're not going to talk theory now. Well, it's all fine and good to stop talking shop, but could there be situations in which killing an attacker is the only viable option or the best available option?  Inquiring minds want to know because, even though rare, attacker-at-the door situations do happen in real life.  But even if they didn't, they could.

First, how do you know he's going to kill your family?  It's impossible to know if the attacker is 100 percent set on harming your family.  In the real world, humans are moral agents who have breakable wills (p. 217)

This is a red herring.  If we're required to have certain knowledge that some bad event is about to occur before reacting to it, then we'll rarely be justified in doing anything.  So having to know with 100 percent certainty can't be a requirement in order to take action.  It's sufficient that one have good reason to believe that if you don't act something worse will occur.  And even that is perhaps too strong.  If I have decent reason to believe there's a 15% chance that tonight my house will burn down, that's enough reason to move my family to a hotel for the night. I don't even need to believe that it will burn down to take action.  If one sees a crazy-eyed, shotgun toting, swastika branding thug enter a school with students present, that's reason enough to begin considering violence as an option.

Second, are you 100 percent sure that God won't intervene?  Unless God has whispered this in your ear, and you're 100 percent sure it was God who whispered, you can't know this (p.218).

First off, why think that the only way you could know God won't intervene is if God told you this audibly?  Second, it's another red herring.  If one student is shot, then another, then another, even if you don't know with 100% certainty that God will not intervene, you have good reason to think that he won't.  (More generally, since most of us experience miracles rarely, we'll probably have good reason to think that God won't intervene).  But you don't even need good reason to think that God won't intervene--you just need reason to think that your action would be better than inaction.

Third, what are the chances that your attempt to kill the attacker will succeed?  Realistically.  Do you own a gun?  Is it loaded?  Are you a good shot (p.218)?

These things are certainly worth asking, but they don't help us to know in advance whether shooting the attacker is permissible and is therefore another option to consider.

Or what if you thought the attacker was trying to kill your family, but he only wanted bread?  So you fire and nick his shoulder--and now he's ticked.  Only now is he going to kill your family, even though he had no original intention of doing so.  Your violent response brought more harm on your family (p. 218).

Again, these questions are certainly worth raising.  One should do one's best with what time one has to accurately assess the situation.  I do find it somewhat disingenuous, though, that in a section wherein we're not considering matters from a theoretical standpoint--because we live in the "real world"--that we're now asked to consider the theoretical possibility that someone with a gun has come to our house to get bread.


  1. Fantastic response to Preston's claims. I finished "Fight" about a week ago and he honestly had me close to becoming a 100% pacifist. Very glad I got to read this. I very much enjoyed your dissection of his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and how you view Jesus' message there, especially within the contexts of Luke. Have a great semester.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I very much enjoyed talking with you about this. Keep on Rockin' in the Free World.