June 5, 2009

Christianity and war

I know there are at least two people who read this blog who actually know stuff about Christianity, and I'm wondering if you (or other people! people I don't know!) could help me with something I find confusing. I've read the New Testament, and I know a little about the early history of the Christian church, but I know more or less nothing about more recent theology. Jesus is very clear in the New Testament, mostly. "Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also." (from Luke, and also from Matthew.) He hangs out with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors, and I don't remember a single instance in which he does anything violent (though I'm ready to be corrected on this). There's some talk of how God will judge people, but really nothing about how anyone should carry out that judgment now, and in fact various injunctions against judging, more or less on the concept that it's God's job to do that and we're not God. At least that's how I remember it, from my New Testament class seven years ago.

So obviously Tiller's murder raises some questions for me, but so do the Crusades and pretty much every war that any Christian organization has blessed or waged. What's up with that? How do Christian theologians justify war and retribution? There's plenty of bloodthirsty behavior in the Old Testament, so I can see where Jews are getting it. I know basically nothing about Muslim theology, but it does seem like there's not the same crazy pacifism in Muslim tradition. I mean, it seems like it's mostly a situation of "people will be people, no matter what the scriptures actually say," but I do wonder how the people who claim to buy into that scripture then square it with their own desires for violence and retribution. Especially if there are people who grapple with it in a serious and honest way.


Frank said...

While you're right that pacifism seems to be one constant in JC's message, the story of Jesus losing his temper in the temple can be construed as an instance of violence. And violence of questionable justification, considering that the moneychangers/animal sellers were supposed to be there to allow for pilgrims to fulfill ritual sacrifice prescribed by the Big Guy in Hebrew scripture.

Not saying that that story particularly can be/is interpreted as justification for violence, but as an example of how you can find support in the Bible for almost any argument you want to make, from the life of JC himself and more broadly elsewhere in the NT or OT. And a lot of neo-orthodox thinkers/believers look to the OT as much as to the Gospels. (I'm talking very narrowly about Catholicism here, not about broader Christian traditions.)

More recently, JPII wrote about "just war" in one encyclical. But I never read it (have you ever read an encyclical? Oi va voi, or translated into Irish, JESUS MARY AND JOSEPH!). So less able to answer that question.

North said...

The thing that struck me about the New Testament when I read it - having grown up with the Old one - was actually how unified it is. It's a natural outgrowth of focusing on one guy during the course of a fairly short life (where the OT is actually about a whole tribe and everyone they ran into over hundreds and hundreds of years, as well as their elaborate personal hygiene rules), but compared to the OT, the NT is a marvel of clarity and direction, full of fairly clear themes and instructions. I think that contrast is part of why I see the NT (and especially the life of Jesus) as so clear and particular, and why it seems weird to me me when people use Christianity to justify stuff that Jesus seemed pretty clearly against.

Jews, of course, do exactly the same thing - Talmudic scholars got rid of capital punishment pretty early by erecting very high evidentiary barriers to using it.

It still surprises me that neo-orthodox people focus on Old Testament stuff so much. Why that, and not Levirate marriage or the whole mixed-fibers thing? Why that above the whole direction of JC's life? (I know Jesus got rid of the dietary laws, but it seems just as clear to this non-Christian that he wanted to get rid of most violence.)

I have not read the encyclical. And with that recommendation, I'm not likely to. Also: since you brought up the whole moneychangers incident, I've had the Billy Bragg/Wilco/Woody Guthrie song 'Christ for President' in my head. All day. Thanks a lot.

THE FIRE BOSS (aka EFF BEE) said...

I also think "it's mostly a situation of 'people will be people, no matter what the scriptures actually say'," especially where 'people' includes -- ta da -- (private) governments.

Beyond that, I think the main factors are (1) an absolute worldview that divides phenomena into good and evil (which frequently becomes us vs. them) and (2) the duty to proselytize and convert, which is tied, eschatalogically, to bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven.

(2) is very present in the Gospels and NT generally. (1) can be read in, e.g., Matthew 10:34, "I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword":
However, I think the strict good/evil dichotomy gains its force more from later developments in church history.