Christian Pacifism: peace as virtue OR Why I cannot understand Milbank

In his essay Violence: Double Passivity John Milbank sets out to show how the pacifist conviction of non-violence may not be all that is seems.  In his critique of pacifism he points out two problematic postures of, what these pacifists claim to be, non-violence.  “The pacifist outlook,” he writes, “seems to assume that where one is presented with acts of violence in real life—either towards others or to oneself—then to retain a stance of onlooker is morally superior to undertaking a defensive counterviolence.”[1] That is to say, in the name of peace, the pacifist renounces participation in a given violent event.  Milbank is right to show how a posture of non-violence or spectatorship is implicated in violence.  I think, however, that he goes wrong in aiming his critique at pacifism as a whole instead of the particular understanding of pacifism he is describing.  With the help of Hauerwas, and, perhaps surprisingly, Milbank, I would like to consider a different understanding of pacifism, in which the Christian understanding of non-violence (or peace) names a virtue.

Milbank rejects the understanding of pacifist non-violence as onlooker because it assumes that one can respond to violence in a purely nonviolent manner and, furthermore, that the appropriate response is one of passivity (non-violence).  This is, of course, the result of the tendency to think of violence as characteristically physical; that violence names an action, whereas non-violence names a refrain from that action.  Milbank, however, makes a significant claim when he writes that

“violence is never merely witnessed; it must also be judged. Is the outstretched arm a push, an assault, or a stay? Is the crack of the whip a spur, a rebuke, or a caress? It is clear that apparent violence may not after all be violence…inversely, that asserting will may in reality be negative… apparently nonviolent and neutral

assertion [may be], after all, privation and therefore violence.”[2]

It is with this claim that Milbank goes on to say that the spectatorship of the pacifist is indeed more violent than a response of intervention or counterviolence.[3]

I am here not concerned with why or how spectatorship is more violent, because I essentially agree with Milbank in rejecting a kind of pure non-violence.  Or, to put it differently, I agree that one is always implicated in violence and that peaceable intention or action is often deceived.  My concern is, rather, with all the pacifists whom Milbank has thrown out the window in response to one understanding of pacifism.  This rejection of “all because of one” move seems a bit extreme, unnecessary, and ultimately unhelpful, to me.  I say it is unhelpful because it gives the pacifist (or whomever, really) only two options of response: intervention (counterviolence) or spectatorship (which is also violent).  While Milbank might then lean in the direction of intervention as a more appropriate response, I want to resist this presentation of absolute either/or options.  In other words, without denying implication in violence, I want to cultivate ways of intervening or acting (to use Milbank’s non passive language) that are informed by an imagination of (not simply non-violence but) something other than violence, namely peace.

Peace, Hauerwas writes, “is the work of charity, which no one denies is a virtue.  Peace is not a virtue only in the sense that it is encompassed in charity—which is at once a virtue and an activity—through which we love God and out neighbour.”[4] The pacifist, then, is not at all passive but constantly working to participate in charity, the gift exchange inaugurated in creation ex nihilo and imparted in Christ.  It is ironic that I end up drawing on Milbank’s own work elsewhere to articulate a Christian pacifism quite different from the one he rejects.  Milbank’s work on gift exchange in The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice describes a radical participation in the exchange of charity.  Furthermore, Milbank himself writes that “charity [is] not something for me, privately, to perform, but an entire network of complex reciprocity.”[5] Peace and/or non-violence are not then positions taken in response to particular situations of violence one might encounter; rather, peace names participation in the imagination offered (as gift) through Christ.  I think Hauerwas claims exactly this truth when he writes that “Christian non-violence is necessary not because it promises us a world free of war, but because in a world of war as faithful followers of Christ we cannot be anything other than nonviolent.”[6] Nonviolence here names the cultivation and practice of the virtues of peace, such as charity, in spite of our failure to do so.

I have shown that I find implicit in Milbank’s other work a description of Christian pacifism that I also find in Hauerwas. It is for this reason that I think Milbank “throws out the baby with the bathwater” in his rejection of pacifism all together.  That is not to say that Milbank does not offer an important critique of a certain kind of pacifism.  He certainly does; his showing of spectatorship as violence is not to be made insignificant.  Ultimately though, his conclusion to reject pacifism seems to be more of a language issue than anything else, and I find this hang up to be unhelpful.  Christian pacifism does not seek to secure peace but to follow Christ.  And it seems that the only reason Milbank would disagree with this proclamation is because of the word “pacifism.”  This is why I cannot understand Milbank.


[1] John Milbank, “Violence: Double Passivity,” in Must Christianity be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology, ed. Kenneth R. Chase and Alan Jacobs (Michigan: Brazos Press, 2003) 186.

[2] Milbank, “Violence: Double Passivity,” 184.

[3] Ibid, 186.

[4] Stanley Hauerwas, “Explaining Christian Nonviolence,” in Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology, ed. Kenneth R. Chase and Alan Jacobs (Michigan: Brazos Press, 2003) 181.

[5] John Milbank, “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” First Things, March 1999, available from http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/02/004-the-ethics-of-self-sacrifice-20, para.32.

[6] Hauerwas, “Explaining Christian Nonviolence,” 180-181.

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19 comments on “Christian Pacifism: peace as virtue OR Why I cannot understand Milbank

  1. The Problem of Third-Party Violence…

    In Kampen’s latest post she discusses John Milbank’s objection to Christian pacifism, which is raised on the grounds that the pacifist is unjustified in observing a violent action and failing to take action to stop it and/or rectify the sit…

  2. adhunt says:

    I noticed over on Und fur Sich that you wrote Milbank about the possibilities of “practical” (for lack of a better word) outworkings of his theology of Gift and he basically gave some stupid reply about British intellectual exceptionalism. Lord, I wish he wasn’t such an asshole sometimes ’cause I really like his theology and I at least plan on making RO trajectories take an ecclesiological turn. The least he could do is write a couple hymns instead of elaborate epic poems about angels right?

  3. Kampen says:

    I’m entirely with you on that. I was impressed that he replied to the e-mail the very next day,(I thought, “wow, maybe he’s not as academic assholish as he comes off in much of his writing!” and then I was not so impressed with his elitism; his willingness and comfort with splitting America and the UK into some bizarre academic pseudo-dualism.

    And it deeply saddens me to know brothers and sisters in the church and the wider intellectual community are being ostracized by RO. I’m glad you’re not throwing him out the window because of that though. (“Let him who is without sin throw the first stone” is the line that keeps haunting me throughout these discussions). I think we ought to follow through/continue with his theology of Gift whether or not he does.

  4. John says:

    I think this is a little unfair to Millbank’s argument. He seeks to deal with what Christians are challenged to do when faced with literally no other option than either to commit violence against an evil-doer lest allow (and so implicitly support) still greater violence to befall the innocent. I’m sure he’s quite aware that Christian pacifism is non synonymous with being completely passive – at least of the Hauerwas streak – and he would no doubt agree that non-violent resistance constitutes the ethical norm and ideal of Christian living. Certain there is nothing excluding this view in his scholarship. But what do we do when literally every other non-violent options have been exhausted, and yet evil is about to triumph over the poor and oppressed of society? That is, when all other options have been taken off the table such that we really are left only with Milbank’s initial two scenarios: ‘onlooker’ or ‘undertaking a defensive counterviolence.’ For my money, I’d side with Milbank that we are charged to be responsible for our brothers’s safety even when it means departing from our preferred form of behaviour – rather than sticking to a legalistic pacifism which hopes in vain to preserve our souls from the ritual impurity of bloodshed, whatever the human cost.

    • Kampen says:

      My question for you is, how do we measure when this literal absolute reduction to two binary options takes place? That is the kind of question your proposition leads to. But I’m not ultimately interested in the answer. You’re essentially purporting Just War theory, which I happen to disagree with. I don’t think the question is at all an interesting one as far as peacebuilding and non-violent action are concerned. It is a question that is preoccupied with taking control and making things come out right. I think that such a preoccupation vis a vis ethics is residually imperial.

      • John says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response, Kampen.

        My ethic could possibly lead to something like just war theory, yes – sorry about that! Fair enough that you happen not to agree with it, but I think it’s a bit of a fudge for Milbank’s position to be dismissed as stemming from only a linguistic issue – on the contrary, he dismisses pacifism because he believes that rigidly adhering to such an ethic results in more people being murdered and tortured than otherwise would be, and that he sees preventing such situations – ‘taking control and making things come out right’ – as an essential part of Christian love and more important than a legalistic adherence to yet another ‘ism’, even if that ‘ism’ happens to be non-violence at any cost. If anything, actually, he might rather see pacifism as stemming from a linguistic confusion – i.e. of drawing a theoretical distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ violence which allows those who allow violence to take place through inaction to be washed clean as morally guiltless, despite the outcome being exactly the same as actively committing it themselves.

        Anyway, you’er right that this proposition does lead to some difficult questions as to how and when force should be used, but I’m not troubled by that – these kind of problems are not dissolved through becoming a pacifist either. It’s difficult, for example, to know when we should get into arguments with people for the sake of a greater good, and when we should probably just let things be – there’s certainly no easy hard and fast rule for determining this – but that doesn’t mean we should never ever criticise. Jesus told his followers never to be angry, and indeed that anger in the heart was equivalent to murder. He also said never to call anyone a fool or to insult people. And yet he got absolutely furious with the Pharisees, called them a brood of vipers and all kinds of different nasty things – not to mention invading a house of worship and cause uproar and fear with a whip. As well as suggesting we should not take commands against killing literally – given Jesus obviously literally violates his other commandments from the same Sermon quite a few times in his ministry – it also shows more generally that Jesus was willing to do things which are, in themselves, undesirable, for the sake of a right result. Unless you think the Pharisees enjoyed being mocked, or that it’s intrinsically a good thing to shout at people, to insult them and make them feel small? This is what Jesus did.

        Incidentally, I see nothing wrong with an ethic which is ‘preoccupied with taking control and making things come out right.’ I’m not convinced any other kind of ethic even exists – other, perhaps, than a Gnostic ethic of self-interest which cares more for ones own spiritual purity than setting to right wordly affairs. Sorry if that sounds a bit simplistic or rhetorical, but I really don’t see any other kind of thinking reflected int he life of Christ. What was Jesus doing when he insulted the Pharisees and stormed the temple if not to try to influence them and ‘make things come out right? Either he was trying to help both them and the world, or he was just doing it for the sake of being a judgmental dickhead. I’m pretty sure it’s the first one 🙂 The point being he was prepared to get his hands dirty, and even do things he probably in some sense felt bad about (or do you think he felt nothing but self-righteous pleasure after he rebuked the pharisees?) If Christ condescended to become flesh for us – indeed, to become Sin for us – should we really be so reluctant to break our own ritual purity for the sake of our persecuted neighbours and enemies?

        This is not to say that I have nothing to say about peacebuilding and non-violent action. Non-violence should remain the norm and the usual Christian approach to conflict. But we should not fail to perform a violent action when, for example, we are literally 100% certain that failing to do so would only result in more evil. So if a rich, white president had his finger on the trigger and was about to nuke half the poor of sub-Saharan Africa, and the threat was so immediate, and you were so far away, that you had no choice but to shoot… well, I think you’ve got to shoot. Sorry. To me any other ethic is just another ethic of white privilege used to keep the poor in check and prop up the current nasty system we have through demanding in action at any cost. Speaking of which, whilst I obviously have some sympathy with just war views, being a non-pacifist does not actually mean one has to support any wars. It may well be that, in most or even all instances, large scale international conflicts only cause more harm than good in the long term through perpetuating violence and all the rest of it. But in handling isolated incidents like the one mentioned above, or supporting general law and order, it may well still be appropriate to respond with limited violence – namely in situations where I’m sure that a failure to act will result in thousands of innocents being horribly murdered for no reason. I see it as the natural implication of the Golden Rule and loving my enemy (and yes, it’s an easy rhetorical flourish to ask ‘how can one love her enemy as she kills him?,’ but no more so than asking ‘how can you love your enemy, let alone neighbour, if you’d allow millions of them to be raped and murdered in order to keep your hands free of committing a single violent act?’ – which in principle absolute pacifism is committed to) The gospel of freedom from the law should not be used to generate yet another law to worship instead of Christ. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t normally try to live as pacifists, or shouldn’t regard it as a general rule to aspire to, but that we shouldn’t be so bloody single-minded about it that we refuse to consider any other option regardless of the consequences. i.e. we should remember that God made pacifism for man, not man for pacifism (see Mark 2:27!)

        • Kampen says:

          I understand the argument you’re making and I understand the urgency that drives that kind of ethic when we are faced with the proliferation of violence and conflict in the world today. However, theologically speaking, don’t you think that an ‘ethic of responsible control’ (if I may call what you are proposing that) is impoverished of eschatology? And if not, could you articulate that?

          • John says:

            I’m not entirely sure what you mean by an impoverished eschatology in this context. Certainly I trust that all shall be well in the end and that God will make all things new. But this seems no excuse to let evils go unchecked for the time being simply because God will make things alright in the end. A guaranteed future perfection does not justify choosing a greater imperfection (say, x number of innocent slaughtered) over a lesser imperfection (say, a single aggressor facing a single instance of violence) for the moment. Pastorally, I’d be doubly suspicious given this kind of eschaton-driven thinking has historically been used to justify a multitude of sins, namely keeping the poor and oppressed of society satisfied with their lot as their true reward is in heaven.

            If you’re thinking more of the call of the Christian towards a realised eschatology and to make the Kingdom present by living as though it had already come… well, I just don’t buy that as a basis of ethics. I realise there’s always a tension between the now and not-yet aspect of the coming of the Kingdom, but ultimately I think that should be left as what it is… a tension. We cannot collapse the now and not-yet into a single now. and behave as though we already had heaven on earth. I think Christians are called to inaugurate the Kingdom, yes, but this is not identical with living as though the Kingdom had already come, deeply intertwined as those two things are. Indeed this seems to be impossible anyway – sure, there’ll be no violence, justified or otherwise, in ‘heaven’. But then neither shall there be any righteous rebuking of our brothers, nor any arguments about pacifism or moral debate or any feeding of the homeless. Nor, for that matter, shall there be any ‘non-violent resistance’ which ends in our own bloodshed, or the spilling of the blood of innocent third parties. So basically I think that pacifism – whether that’s strict, super-passive pacifism, or a more pro-active form of non-violent resistance – stands just as far apart and divorced from the eschaton as an ‘ethic of responsible control’ or just-war or the like.

            Obviously our ethics should be eschatologically driven in as much that they should be cruciform and self-giving, not wordly and self-serving. We should look to the love of God for us shown in Christ as our inspiration, and in anticipation of the fulfilment of this love at the eschaton as our hope. It’s just that I think the implications of this love sometimes call us beyond non-violent resistance, and might sometimes involve my being willing to get my hands dirty and do things I’d really rather not – i.e. inflict violence upon another, something essentially unimaginable to my normal way of thinking – for the sake of the innocent. I think Christians should be willing to sacrifice their own purity for the sake of another, to put people above principles, even a principle as apparently noble as pacifism. So it’s something I wrestle with, but I’m ultimately left unsatisfied with absolute pacifism as a way of life – not because I think it’s unrealistic or too difficult or idealistic, but because I just don’t think it represents the kind of loving and self-giving response we’re called to in the cross.

            Incidentally, apologies if I’ve come across as a bit strong, I respect your views and am quite sure you’re a person of great conscience wrestling things out – I’m greatful for the dialogue!

            • Kampen says:

              I appreciate what you’re wrestling with, and I welcome the dialogue; that is, after all, the purpose of this blog. You might find a recent volume edited by Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer to be of interest. It’s called *A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence* and has some articulate essays in it that don’t shy away from seriously engaging the kinds of questions you are asking.

              • John says:

                Hey! I’ve actually had a read and unfortunately didn’t find it really addressed the questions I thought were most relevant… too much ‘yes this act of violence or war might appear to have been necessary to prevent evil, but *really* we should be focusing on the failure of Christians in the aggressor nation not recognising the non-violent implications of the faith which spawned the whole conflict in the first place!’ – well, yes, but that doesn’t actually answer the question as to what Christians are supposed to do in the situation that other Christians have failed in their peaceful callings and perpetrating evil acts. So I’m afraid to me the book had little genuine dialogue and tended to gravitate towards misdirection and strawmen – but of course I can’t blame them given non-pacifists have been caricaturing and strawmanning pacifists as passive and inactive for centuries now! I actually think one of the main problems for dialogue is that pacifists often inherit the equal and opposite strawman – i.e. they assume non-pacifists are only non-pacifists because they think pacifism is completely and utterly passive or otherwise misunderstand the pacifist position – well, I’m sure some do, but generally non-pacifists are interested in the theoretical ‘what if we’re 100% certain that there is literally zero non-violent alternative which doesn’t result in innocent third parties being murdered?’ type questions – and I’m afraid I just don’t find any viable Christian answers to that in the pacifist position! 🙂

                Of course if there’s a particular page or chapter which I might have missed which you think actually directly answers my main questions then I’d love to take another look (i.e. how do we justify non-violence in those rare situations where we are certain it won’t produce a righteous result for third parties? why should ethics be determined by ‘acting like we’re in the eschatological kingdom’ given a)we’re not and b)it’s not clear the pacifist position is any closer to that anyway? How can we legitimately take not returning evil for evil as meaning ‘not performing x regrettable act in response to an evil act’ … given Jesus himself, and all pacifists, regularly perform unpleasant acts (insults, shouting, etc) in response to evils? i.e. Jesus and pacifists do things which, in and of themselves, would normally be considered evil, but they are treated as good because they are directed towards a good end… so isn’t it arbitrary and legalistic to exclude violence from this? With the possible exception of the first question, I wouldn’t say any of the others were really addressed at all. Pity.

                Many thanks anyway – and I hope you’re having a very merry Christmas!

                • John says:

                  i.e. the ‘On letting your neighbour die’ chapter obviously attempts to address the first question, but more by just redirecting the ‘assumption’ behind the question that ethics should be about trying to produce an equitable result, and arguing that instead that we should plain refuse to return evil for evil on Christological principles, whatever the result. But the discussion just stops there, and doesn’t actually deal with the sort of objections against that which I mentioned before – namely that Jesus and pacifists commit ‘evils’ to produce a good result anyway…. and that in any case there’s no obvious compelling reason as to *why* ethics should not be concerned with its consequences in this way.

                • Kampen says:

                  You say at bottom your concern is “what if we’re 100% certain that there is literally zero non-violent alternative which doesn’t result in third parties being murdered?” I just have a really hard time answering that question because I think the question itself poses some problems. The main problem is, how can we ever be in that kind of a position where we are 100% certain? For me, that is a dead end question because often violent conflicts appear to be caught up in their cycles and absolutely unbreakable in any non-violent way, but in those precise situations I have heard many stories of exactly non-violent interventions; people have somehow imagined something that was rooted in the violent situation but that simultaneously transcends its terms and boundaries. John Paul Lederach’s work has been hugely influential for me in this line of thinking. The question of “what if we’re 100% sure” never quite seems to arrive for me.

                • John says:

                  Well I would find it very hard to believe that there is literally no chance of being absolutely sure some terrible evil act is about to occur which can only be remedied by violence. But absolute certainty isn’t really a clincher anyway, the point is that there are certainly occasions where it is highly likely – the exact percentage is irrelevant – that non-violent intervention is not going to succeed. To be graphic – as that is what violence is – if a friend of mine started raping and torturing my enemies, I do not think it would be appropriate for me (i.e. it would not be showing the kind of enemy-love which Jesus commanded me to practise) to let my enemies be raped and murdered on the off chance I might be able to non-violently persuade the attacker to stop. I should be prepared to try that at first, providing it poses no extra risks to the victims. But even if there are good odds, even if I think there’s a 50/50 chance I might be able to persuade him to stop, what do I do if I also think there’s a 50/50 chance that my failure to use violence will result in him murdering me, and then continuing with the rape and murder of my enemies? Taking a bullet to spare your attackers life is one thing: taking a bullet knowing full well that this is the ticket to your attacker murdering a bunch of other people is another. I simply cannot reconcile absolute non-violence with the ethics of Jesus’ enemy-love.

                  So the basic objection still remains: I am not loving my enemy if I let them get murderered for the sake of preserving my own moral purity… I am not loving my enemy if I sacrifice them to the altar of non-violence. I am not persuaded by appeals to the Sermon on the Mount, because for reasons I have already got into I find a pacifist reading just as literalistic as 6 creationism (I know recognising the nuances of scripture should not be used as an excuse to write off everything that makes us uncomfortable as a metaphor, but I really think it is quite clear that Jesus’ commands are not literal given he literally flouts his command not to get angry, not to insult, not to return evil for evil, etc. all the damn time. Moreover I think we all instinctively understand moral rules like this are context-dependent: e.g. when a parent tells her child that he should never tell a lie, I’m pretty sure the child would do well to understand this does not apply when a bad man turns up wanting to know the password to his granny’s safe or the location of somebody he wants to murder. That kind of attitude really sums up the problem I have with absolute ‘in principle’ pacifism: it takes a generally good and righteous principle, but follows it scrupulously to the letter even when it is highly likely that deeply evil actions will occur as a result, following the literal word of Jesus’ sermon whilst neglecting the weightier matters of the law.

                • John says:

                  In closing, here’s a grim tale to illustrate the cost – it’s certainly shaped some of my views – of non violence. I volunteer at an adult hospice, where some time ago a horrible incident took place: the husband of an out-patient had a bit of an episode – he had delusional problems – and got violent violent and started to assault and tried to rape his wife, apparently thinking she was somebody else. A male nurse was the only one on the scene and, having pacifist convictions himself, he courageously stepped in and offered himself as an alternative victim….’take your aggression out on me instead’ he said… words to that effect anyway (I doubt he was all that composed!) Unfortunately it seems these brave words did not emerge as a creative non-violent solution to the problem, but only caused greater violence: the attacker knocked him to the floor and beat him to a pulp, and then went on to rape his wife anyway. This was not fair on the wife, who was raped; it was not fair on his parents, who had to deal with a horribly beaten son; it was not fair on the permanent residents, who heard the tale and were scared to death and no longer felt safe even in a god damn hospice; it was not fair on myself, who has to reflect on these horrible events far more often than I’d like; it was not even fair on the husband, who now has to live with the guilt of knowing he raped his wife when he was mentally unstable. If the guy – who’s a great guy – had only been willing to risk violence, if he’d only taken the initiative and given the guy a quick smack to the head whilst he still had the advantage of surprise, all this could have been avoided. The tale, told to others, does not serve as an inspiring account of the disarming powers of non-violence – rather it has only entrenched further the equal and opposite error that violence is *always* the solution (which it certainly is not, in my view) in those inclined to believe it. This is a bit personal and horrible I know, but I just don’t believe I – or anyone – has the right to risk an innocent being raped, let alone letting even more people face worse things, based on wildly optimistic and self-serving accounts of their own powers to magically solve every problem in a completely pacifistic way. No matter how godly and inspirational I might be, other people retain their free-will, and I have no right to assume my non-violent solution is going to work, especially when the risk to others is so high (in fact, if I were able to be confident of that – if I my non-violent words/actions would definitely change the attackers mind, would those words/actions not then essentially amount to just a fancy form of irresistable coersion – i.e. force/violence, the very thing pacifists are supposed to be avoiding? But if I’m not confident, then I have no right to risk others lives)

                  Peace out

  5. John says:

    Oh and as a quick point, I think a WWJD ethic is both theologically inappropriate and, in any case, not fulfilled by non-violent resistance. Inappropriate because, as the Son of God dying for the sins of the world, his situation is about as far removed from our own as it is possible to be: who says that we are to behave exactly as Jesus did, especially at this moment? We might as well all become carpenters. In any case, if we’re supposed to behave as Jesus did on the cross, it’s pretty clear that the non-violent resistance of Hauerwas is nothing like it. Did Jesus run away from the cross? Did he non-violently resist his oppressors? Did he shame his oppressors and seek a peaceful resolution to the problem? No, he was absolutely, 100% passive.

  6. Tony Hunt says:

    I fear the entire line of thought flowing from the “Well what if this thing happened?” question makes everything hinge on extremes and exceptions; even if we were to grant that violence may in some extreme circumstances aid the greater good, surely the weight of Christian action and discipleship lies in disciplines of peace and reconciliation.

    And here lies at least Hauerwas’s peaceful praxis, that there needs to exist the kind of church that can produce people who can reason properly even to make such calls; yet the conversation as John is framing it so far tends to reduce to the choices of individuals in given situations; pacifism is about the clean conscience of pacifists rather than about justice. But better, I think, to play the “ecclesial” card and suggest that the very possibility of peace lies in the existence of a people made peaceful in Christ, rather than that straightforward ethical reasoning leads either to pacifism or non-pacifism.

    I imagine Kampen would largely agree with me; though I don’t know if she would still follow my (Hauwerwas’s) “ecclesiocentric” line.

    • John says:

      But what is life but a series of choices to individuals in given situations? 🙂 But yes, I recognise we should not actually live our lives through constant appeals to some idealised, mechanical rule book telling us what to do in this situation and telling us what to do in a different situation. But then that is *precisely why* I cannot commit myself exclusively to pacfism: I am already ruling out listening to the Spirit where-ever it takes me if I am already predisposed to believe a violent action is literally impossible to be commanded by God. You argue that the weight of Christian action and discipleship lies in disciplines of peace and reconciliation: I couldn’t agree more. I just do not want to rule out merciful and loving violence as being sadly the only option at times: I have given my hypotheticals (and one horribly true account) not as tools for calculating the details for future ethical decision making, but simply as test cases to show that, as righteous and godly as pacifism might normally be, it would not seem prudent or loving to absolutize it completely. As I said before, pacifism is in some sense a command of God, but we should remember that pacifism is supposed to help people, not harm them, and so should not implement pacifism if it is pretty obvious that it is unlikely to only further the cause of evil: exactly as we should remember that God made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath. Jesus’ message of peace was supposed to free us from this legalism, not entrench it still further. Again,to repeat: somebody is not being made peaceful in Christ if they allow their enemies to be murdered because they are more committed to non-violence than they are to love None of this means that pacifism is not generally the right and proper Christian response, or undermines Jesus’ message of peace: Christians should never take venegance, should never seek to exact retributive justice, should never seek to punish… we should live in peace with everyone – so far as it is possible anyway (Romans 12:18) – but this does not mean we should not prevent evil, at least when it is befalling others, from occuring. To me the real contrast of the Sermon on the Mount is not between violence and non-violence, but between legal justice understood as exacting punishment and getting even and externally following the letter of the law regardless of the internal and human cost VS. a true righteousness of the heart and spirit which always seeks the overall good, shuns retributive and punishment-based justice, acts as is appropriate to the situation by listening to the spirit instead of following legalistic laws (even when that law is a ‘nice’ one like pacifism!) and is more concerned about the actual welfare of others rather than having a ‘clean conscience’ according to some principle.

  7. Tony Hunt says:

    On a side note, I wonder now if you, Kampen, would still be able to positively utilize “the gift” in the same way this post suggests, seeing as you’ve repudiated creation ex nihilio. (Not a veiled criticism, just a thought that occurred to me; Lord knows I usually disagree with anything I wrote in 2009)

    • Kampen says:

      Yeah I’m pretty much with you on the ecclesial point. As for “the gift” I don’t have much use for that language anymore. I can see how it functions and how I did use it often to articulate certain sorts of ethical postures but I’m in a process of reworking a lot of that in my own thought. I didn’t even go to my post in responding to John’s questions because I wrote the post in 2009 and I wanted to address John’s comments in and for themselves. The post, I think, mostly just elicited them, but John’s questions do not rely on the post itself.

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