Thursday, May 5, 2016

Preston Sprinkle's Non-Violence Argument Summarized and Critiqued

Preston Sprinkle has a concluding blog post where he summarizes his pacifist argument.  It's a good, clear, summary, free from unnecessary polemics and distractions.  It gets to the heart of his Biblical case for pacifism.

Much of what he says is a summary of his book which I responded to and critiqued at great length in a series of posts already.  Anyone who hasn't read that series in its entirety might want to do so because I will not be repeating myself at length.  (I address almost all of his current arguments and others, including the Sermon on the Mount in the link above).

But I'll try to respond to some of the propositions he advances which go beyond the book or are central to his case.

Sprinkle: There is a certain logic to stuffing every murderer and pedophile and thief in a gas chamber, and this might lessen crime and make society a better place. But this doesn’t mean it’s the Christian thing to do. The whole “love your enemies” nonsense pretty much throws a wrench in that engine.

I don't think that Jesus's command to love one's enemies entails that it's always wrong to use violence.  Jesus, no doubt, teaches an ethic of love.  I interpret the Sermon on the Mount as laying out that message.  In short, Jesus is advocating that we aim to promote the well-being of everyone, including our enemies.  We are to take our enemies (and we will have real enemies) seriously as human beings and treat them as humans with human worth and are not to treat them as mere means--as things which don't rise to the level where we have to even consider their worth and well-being.

But if Jesus is teaching an ethics of love wherein we are to love even our enemies, how is this consistent with sometimes using violence?  First, let us understand violence, not in Sprinke's loaded sense in his book that includes an intention to harm or destroy another against his will, but rather as an act which harms someone against his will.  That is, let us think of violence in the ordinary sense which does not include an illicit intention as a part of the act (as Sprinkle often does himself).

Could one love someone and shoot him?  It might seem obvious that one cannot, but I don't think the answer is that obvious.  It is good for a murderer to have his murders be stopped (regardless of what he thinks about being shot).  If shooting a would-be-murderer in an act of murder is the only likely way of stopping the murder, then it would be good for the murderer to be shot.  (See Breaking Bad for an excellent illustration of when it is better to die of cancer than to continue to live).  From the Christian point of view, there are worse things that can befall one than being shot or dying; becoming a murderer is one.  ("Tully, it is downright scary that you just entertained the view that you could love someone by killing him."  Response: it is at least as scary that you entertained the view that it's never right to use lethal force when innocents are being slaughtered.)

But maybe we should think that one cannot love a murderer by shooting the murderer.  Even though we are to think of the murderer's good--we are to have his good in mind and not merely our own in considering our actions--perhaps one can love only the victims being killed by the act of shooting the murderer.  Still, insofar as the act of shooting the murderer is intended out of love for the would-be-victims, an act of shooting can be an act of love for them.  What the Principle of Double Effect might rule out, though, would be an act of shooting the murderer out of hatred of the murderer such that one intends evil to befall the murderer. (For example, one shoots the murder with the slur that one hopes the murderer burns in hell for all eternity.)

But, really, what is the alternative in the attacker-at-the-door scenario?  Is refraining from pulling the trigger a greater act of love?  Is not resisting at all a greater act of love?  A greater act of love for whom?  And why?
As stated throughout my previous blogs, it’s a shame when the discussion of Christian ethics cites a few verses out of context and then spends the bulk of its attention drumming up theoretical scenarios to try to show the impossibility—or at least inconsistency—of the nonviolent way. To be blunt, most American Christians assume a secular narrative about how we should use lethal force to defend our families, kill the enemy if he’s trying to kill us, and support our troops as our nation fights against worldwide enemies. Then, when faced with a scripturally based nonviolent ethic, they turn to theoretical scenarios to show that this won’t work. It’s odd that I’m the one who is often ridiculed for suggesting a nonviolent ethic; ridiculed by Christians. Our whole method of going about constructing a Christian view of violence and nonviolence (and gun control) is deeply syncretistic.
I agree with Sprinkle that a Christian theory of pacifism or non-pacifism needs to come to grips with Biblical texts.  I don't agree, however, that hypothetical or (what he sometimes refers to as) theoretical scenarios should have little or no place in the conversation or argument.  Most people aren't killed by someone else.  It's very unlikely that you or I will be in a position to stop a killer from killing by killing and very unlikely that we will be killed someone.  But what is at issue are exactly these unlikely scenarios, ones which probably will not happen and thus will be counterfactuals (hypotheticals about what might be but in fact are not).

Why I think the unlikely "attacker-at-the door" question is often invoked is as follows: 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 and principles 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" and continues to blog about it.  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 okay to own a gun to use for such a situation?  Is it okay to be a cop?  Sprinkle tends to avoid a direct answer to the question (thus the long hypothetical conversation I commented on in the previous post which distracts from the question of what one should or should not do).  When we get to his chapter in his book on the issue, 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.
I’ve still yet to see a compelling case, driven by Scripture, biblical theology, and early church history, for using violence as a Christian way to defeat or confront evil—that is, stopping bad guys from doing bad things. Almost every argument I’ve seen is profoundly utilitarian, secular, and almost completely (sometimes completely) ignores the nature of Jesus’s upside down kingdom. It usually comes down to cultural assumptions salted with a few (mainly Old Testament) verses taken out of context, which are then baptized in the bloody images from Revelation.

That killing is always impermissible, I think, is easily shown to be false in the Old Testament.  I don't need to cherry pick a verse or two because we (Christians, Jews) know that some acts of killing have clearly been permissible because some were commanded by God.  A hard core pacifist will have to argue either that God did not command killing in the Old Testament (the authors got it wrong or never intended us to believe that) or that God commanded the Israelites to do something immoral.  I don't think Sprinkle will take either fork in that disjunction.  In his book, he seems to admit as much but then tries to downplay the extent to which killing was permissible in Old Testament times.  But even he seems to admit (with reluctance?) that some acts of killing were permissible in Old Testament times.

An alternative is to argue that matters changed when Jesus came on the scene.  What was once permissible is now impermissible.  Sprinkle says that Jesus has an "upside down kingdom."  But does he?   He suggests that he's not changing the law (jots and tittles) but fulfilling it.  Is homosexual sex now permissible but heterosexual sex impermissible?  Murder not a punishable offense, but self-defense punishable?  Worshiping idols an offense to God but now not?  Honoring one's parents, helping the poor and orphans once requirements of justice, now mere options of Christian liberty?

Sprinkle later says that he thinks the burden of proof is on the non-pacifist side.  I'm not sure how much invoking a burden of proof is helpful in this context (it could serve to beg the question), but since he invoked it, so will I: if there is a burden of proof about whether stopping someone on a killing spree of innocent children by lethal force is permissible, the burden of proof is on the Christian pacifist who thinks that Jesus radically changed the ethical norms of killing on this score (as well as others).  It's a matter of common sense that one should worship God only, that murder is wrong, that stealing is wrong, and that killing a killer in the act of killing innocents is permissible if killing is the most probable means to stop the killing given our past evidence of how likely other methods are.  There's nothing wrong with appealing to common sense.  Paul himself claims in Romans that there is a natural law that can be known apart from knowing God's commands in the Torah.
What about the fact that there are no instances of Jesus using violence, and that when the disciple pulls a sword Jesus rebukes him saying that "Those who live by the sword, die by the sword."
This is the strongest, Christian pacifist argument.  If there are plausible non-pacifist interpretations, then I think the case falls apart, since the Old Testament is clear that some cases of killing are permissible.

We should be careful about WWJD thinking--at least to an extent.  Jesus never married.  Not marrying is an option (a good and perhaps best option for some!) but it's not required.  There are circumstances in which it's permissible and good to marry.  Jesus says nothing against incest or polygamy.  But we presume from evidence in the Old Testament that Jesus was on board with laws forbidding incest, and we can make inferences about what he thinks about polygamy from things he does say about marriage.  Jesus walked on water.  Don't try that.  He performed miracles without praying for them.  We lack that power.  And so on and so forth.

Since I don't think we can simply know what to do in our day only by looking at everything that Jesus did while ignoring laws in the Old and New Testament, I think we should continue to think that Jesus thought that killing is sometimes permissible.  But don't live by the sword.  That's to have the militaristic spirit that Sprinkle rightly condemns.  The disciples didn't realize Christ's mission which was ultimately to die because he loved the world.  They were still thinking militaristically and had a false view about a political Messiah.  It's worth noting too that Jesus never says that all killing is impermissible and that pacifism is true.

Why then does Jesus never come out and say, "Look, I've said a lot of things that might be misconstrued as advocating a complete non-violent pacifism.  But it's okay to kill sometimes."  Why not make that clear?

I think the best explanation is because Jesus understands human nature and that people will defend their families in most circumstances and other innocents as well as themselves, and governments will have a police force until the end of time.  As long as there are sinful people, there will be people acting in self-defense and governments using necessary force to ensure justice and tranquility as far as is possible in this fallen world.  There's little need to say more by Jesus.  (There are a lot of Christians, but very few pacifists. Today they mostly exist in relatively peaceful Democratic societies under little threat of war with the safety and right to advocate pacifism.)

He also knows the tendency towards militancy and vengeance.  I think we should expect what we get: a message of love which stresses peace, turning the other cheek, and all the other things Sprinkle mentions.

On the Early Church Fathers and pacifism see this as well as comments pro and con.

I end by summarizing the case for non-pacifism, that is, that killing is sometimes permissible:
It was permissible and sometimes commanded in Old Testament times.  Thus there are times in history when it is permissible.

That it is still permissible now is implied from Jesus never saying that it is impermissible and his upholding and fulfilling the Law and Romans 13 regarding the state's use of the sword.  (For an extended treatment in political theology about the relation of Christians to the state read this).  As well, it can be inferred from the natural law Paul speaks about in Romans combined with empirical evidence about effective means of preventing and stopping violent crimes.  We know that miracles stopping killers from killing rarely happen in an active killing situation, but police or armed citizens do--either by showing resistance wherein the murderer takes his own life or by wounding or killing the murderer.  All other things being equal, it's better that one is killed than two, and better that a murderer is killed than a non-murderer.  So killing is sometimes permissible.

One can, of course, agree with Sprinkle that one should abhor vengeance and militarism while disagreeing that killing and violence is never morally permissible.  And one can look forward to a world in which there will be no violence nor tears.

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