Monday, June 14

Some Notes Toward A Theology OF Arse-Kicking

skepticHere’s a sterling opportunity for someone to educate me. Why do so many – I won’t say “all,” but I feel pretty safe saying “most” – progressives / liberals / left-wingers almost reflexively and uncritically take such a dim, jaundiced, and suspicious view of the military and of members thereof? I am prompted to ask this question by a recent post on Patheos; that begs a multitude of questions the author rather blithely skates over.  But in particular, at the very beginning, the writer simply asserts with no apparent justification that (boldface added)

… from an American mindset, original Christianity and the first Christians appear nuts: they were universally nonviolent (against capital punishment, abortion, military service and killing in self-defense), rejected individual ownership of property in order to redistribute their wealth (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:35), and rejected any involvement with the government.

Now, just for the record, I am sure that there are indeed many ways in which American Christians’ attitudes and values depart from those of the first-century-CE, “primitive,” primarily Jewish Church. That is beyond dispute. But the question I am asking is whether, assuming the above characterization is accurate, even that early Church’s articulation of (what it no doubt saw as) “Christian values,” in this case concerning military service, represented biblical norms any more faithfully than their 21st-century counterparts.  Maybe both characterizations, that of the first century CE no less than that of the twenty-first, are equally wrong. It seems to me two questions are begged:800px-thumbnail

o Did Jesus consider military service as intrinsically tainted?

I mean military service as such, military service per se, military service tout court. There are obviously ethical issues attaching to military service – just as there are ethical issues  attaching to any occupation or profession.  Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and admitted to cheating in the practice of that profession (Lk. 19:1-10). But Jesus did not admonish Zacchaeus to renounce the profession of tax collection per se. In fact, Jesus never mentioned Zacchaeus’ profession during the encounter, and Zacchaeus himself only alluded to it by way of promising to recompense those he had defrauded. The conclusion would seem to be that tax collection tout court was permissible, provided it was practiced within ethical bounds.

Similarly, in His encounter with the Roman centurion, Jesus did not admonish the centurion to take up another line of work.  The only remark Jesus made to and about the centurion was to praise the centurion’s faith (at least in the Lukan account -- Luke 7:1–10 – the Matthean version -- Matthew 8:5–13 – omits Jesus’ praise). Now, this is interesting … and it becomes even more interesting if we use this story to determine how consistently people on the left are willing to follow their own interpretive logic. It is often asserted, to the point of becoming a cliché, that Jesus saw nothing wrong with homosexuality or homosexual conduct per se, because Jesus never mentioned either. I agree with that argument:  there is no textual record that Jesus ever admonished anyone as to the propriety of homosexual behavior. In fact, the Gospels record no encounters between Jesus and any LGBTQIA individual. (Some have argued that the Greek pais, which is translated “servant,” is a euphemism for the centurion's homosexual lover, but this seems to me to be a maximal conclusion drawn from minimal lexical evidence. And even if true, such an interpretation would only support the argument about Jesus’ indifference to sexual orientation, not Jesus' attitude toward military service.) So it is only to be expected that Jesus would be silent re homosexuality and homoerotic love.

However, just as Jesus is silent on the matter of homosexuality, Jesus is likewise silent on the propriety of military service during his encounter with the Roman centurion. May we conclude by the “silence criterion” that, within the bounds of the usual and obvious moral caveats that apply to all professions and occupations, Jesus is accepting of both types of behavior:  homoeroticism and military service? If not … why? I.e., how would one justify a double standard in light of what I am calling the “silence criterion”? Jesus did not hesitate to proactively broach moral issues when those issues had a direct bearing on His encounter with others. E.g., He broached the subject of wealth with the rich young man who wanted to be a disciple – but the man’s willingness to share his wealth had a bearing on the man’s competence as a potential disciple (Mk. 10:17-27). Did Jesus refrain from alluding to the centurion’s profession because He considered that profession irrelevant to the man’s faith? (In the Lukan account, those who intercede with Jesus on the centurion's behalf cite the centurion's material assistance in building a synagogue, but that is the only allusion to the centurion's generosity in that regard.) If so, that is just restating what I am already arguing. At least in the case of the Roman centurion, the presumptive taint progressives often associate with military service seems to be an instance of a dog that did not bark.


o Did the (putative) pacifism of Jesus reflect the character of a pacifist God?

Perhaps it is on this issue that biblical theology – in both Testaments – parts company with progressive Christian theology and Christology most decisively.  Regardless of whether you regard the Bible as a book of history – which I do not – or as an anthology of theological  / Christological reflection and parable – which I doit is simply impossible to point to the biblical text and infer anything remotely like a pacifistic God therefrom. Quite frankly, the Bible is one of the most sanguineous books in the entire human – never mind just Judaeo-Christian – literary canon. And I repeat:  that is true in both Testaments, the New no less than the Old. Prof. Richard Dawkins' characterization of the biblical God in The God Delusion is neither exaggeration nor libel. It is simply and literally true:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Not to cavil, but I would only substitute “Bible” for “Old Testament”. Think “Donald J. Trump writ large”.

In order to avoid repeating myself, I will simply refer you to “Skeptic’s Collection” columns where, over the years, I have discussed exactly this issue previously, beginning most recently with Easter of 2016 … but also here, here, and here. I am careful to specify “both Testaments” because of New Testament texts like the image of the avenging Jesus in Revelation (Rev. 19:13) and Gospel quotations of Jesus as predicting destruction for villages that reject the Gospel (e.g., Matt. 10:14-15). If the early Church believed in a pacifistic Jesus and a pacifistic God, they did not – because they could not – justify it with reference to either Testament of the Bible – Mr. Corey’s Patheos column notwithstanding.

Joshua's Victory Over the Amalekites -- Nicholas Poussin

Granted, there are the sayings of Jesus about turning the other cheek, returning evil for good, etc. But it is significant that these texts, in context, refer without exception to one’s personal, individual conduct, not to military service on behalf of a social collective.  Jesus’ admonitions on the former modes of conduct, and His silence about the latter, would imply that one cannot simply and naively employ the same standards of morality in the latter as in the former, an attitude too often encountered among progressives. I conclude from this difference that, whereas one is free – arguably even obligated – to adopt a Gandhi-like stance of pacifism toward one’s personal, individual safety, the morally acceptable use of military force consists exclusively in the protection of others. (This is how I interpret the Matt. 26:52 saying about living by the sword and dying by the sword:  not as an advocacy of pacifism, but as a counsel of self protection. If Peter's impetuous use of the sword had eventuated armed conflict between the disciples and the Temple authorities, the disciples would surely have gotten their arses handed to them. So Jesus' admonition to not "live by the sword" is a comment on tactics, not morality:  "Hey guys ... never go bear-hunting with a buggy whip!". By the way, the verse immediately following about God placing "twelve legions" [KJV] of warrior-angels at Jesus' disposal, is difficult to reconcile with allegations regarding the putative pacifism of God, regardless of how one interprets the celestial metaphysics.) That said, however, the propensity for many progressives to react adversely to military action remains largely unaccounted for. (I say "many," not "all," because there are exceptions like the late Christopher Hitchens, who, despite his strong credentials as a progressive, nevertheless advocated the American invasion of Iraq.) The following is my account, in brief.

More than people to the right of them, ideologically, leftists / liberals / progressives tend to be sons and daughters of the European Enlightenment who share a common faith, by no means unjustified, in the ability of human beings to "reason together"  as Isaiah 1:18 says, but who tend to believe in humans' ability to reason autonomously about politics and ethics without the intervention or validation of any Deity.  Hence the recurrence of the word "dialogue" in progressive rhetoric.  What they often lack -- again, Christopher Hitchens is a counterexample -- is a sense of the incorrigibly tragic, i.e., an appreciation of the practical and tragic limits of reason in certain situations with certain people, an issue Martin Buber addressed in his long and eloquent letter to Gandhi regarding Gandhi's advocacy of non-violent resistance to the Nazis by European Jewry. (This consciousness of the tragic also accounts for the resurgence of the concept of sin in, e.g., Karl Barth's post-World-War-I biblical theology.) Rabbi Buber was a tzaddik and no one's idea of a hidebound conservative. But -- it may well be precisely because he was a Jew -- Buber was haunted by a sense of the tragic, like Banquo's ghost at MacBeth's feast, that Gandhi, for all his undisputed greatness otherwise, lacked. I even suspect this is why, at least among many progressives, so little is heard of Buber's respectful but incisive critique of Gandhi's pacifism with regard to the Nazis' Final Solution, and why progressives usually concentrate instead on Gandhi's emphasis on non-violence:  most progressives' implicit faith in the efficacy of rationality and dialogue cause them to suffer at least as much as Mahatma Gandhi from an underdeveloped sense of the tragic. Therefore, they emphasize an Enlightenment-based exclusively "reason-centric" view of both history and politics, a corollary of which is a rather unreflective and uncritical suspicion of the occasional necessity for the judicious application of justified violence, and why so many progressives view the very phrase "justified violence" as an oxymoron.

More about this in a future rant ...

This is certainly a subject fraught with ambiguity, and therefore not to be subjected to moralistic bombast.  So I wish for my progressive siblings what Don Miguel de Unamuno wished for his readers at the end of his great meditation The Tragic Sense of Life:  "May God deny you peace but give you glory".

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Ceremonial military parade ... US Dept. of Defense ... public domain
Combat simulation picture ... US Dept. of Defense ... public domain
Women's peace march ... Library of Congress ... public domain
Joshua's Victory Over the Amalekites ... Nicholas Poussin ... public domain


  • James, this is a great conversation, and one that’s been on my mind for probably 30 years. I find myself neck deep in military in my family, and am very joyful to support my family members, one of whom is a Captain in the Army, a West Point grad. He’s at Fort Bragg, which is prepared to send a significant force anywhere in the world within 24 hours of the Presidents orders. My son wanted to be a Navy SEAL, and then served a faithful hitch in the Navy has a sailor. My daughter is a civilian who works for the CIA.

    I’ll never forget a Bible study back in the late 1970s, which described this crisis of conscience, as an interplay between two different views of the world. One from Romans 13 and one from the temptations passages in the Gospels. Is God the Lord of the earth, or is satan pretty able to distribute the earth’s powers to whomever, including Jesus if he asks for it? If God’s Lordship is somehow expressed through government, then a good soldier is doing his or her work under the Lordship of God. If the devil has been given free rein on earth, then government is an expression of his dark lordship, in which case no service, military service, can be fully defended for a Christian. Serve if you like, but you may be serving the devil.

    Romans 13.1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

    Matthew 4.8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

    All of that is pretty interesting, but I think for myself as a progressive, this positive support of the military all changed during the Vietnam era. I could understand the history and necessity of World War II. I can understand the history after that a little bit. I don’t know much about the Korean War. But all of us are needing to bone up on Vietnam. Ken Burns is taking it on I’ve heard. Very few of us understood at the time what our young men were asked to do over there; asked to do by our government in Washington DC that made a commitment to propagating the war via “body count”. The “body count” became the strategy. In practice this meant, by and large, we fought the war by killing innocent civilians. And as many as we could. If a few Vietcong soldiers got killed, then that was a bonus, frosting on the cake. This history has been irrefutably documented in government records as unearthed in Nick Turse’s book “Kill Anything That Moves.” It was an evil way to fight a war. It was fighting a war with the techniques of terrorism. We did that. It spawns for me a nod of the head yes whenever I hear slogans such as, “Presidents lie and people die.” We were the dark lord for the Vietnamese people. Shoulda coulda woulda . . . when the French left said, “you all figure it out.”

    As far as I know, our conscience is sufficiently guilty about Vietnam, that our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places now, are not propagated with the same excuse relative to collateral damage. There still is of course collateral damage. But we don’t excuse ourselves the way we did in Vietnam.

    I’ve discovered about myself that what I really believe in, number one, is secular freedom. I want my church, synagogue, mosque or temple to be free, and yours, and people of no church. I want the press to be free to cartoon whoever they want. Justice and liberty for all. What will society look like in 100 years if we do not win some of these battles now?

    We will need to fight fire with fire, in this war with Islamist Jihadists. People who are bent on mass killing cannot be allowed to live free. They must be captured or killed. And in great numbers perhaps. But how do we protect the innocent? Especially when some of the innocent are our own men and women in uniform? What are they asked to do? We have to make sure what we ask them to do will not destroy their own souls.

    Please pray for my son in law and all our men and women in uniform. They deserve our support. The world will not remain free without them, and their “arse-kicking” 

    • Sorry to be so tardy in replying to this. For some reason WordPress doesn’t pass along comments by “default”. You have to go proactively looking for them. Don’t ask me why. Agreed with all. I’m always mystified by the ability of some Christians to read unconditional pacifism out of any biblical text, Old or New Testament. The God of the OT who engaged in massive acts of genocide and indiscriminate slaughter is certainly no pacifist God. The Jesus of the NT who predicted, apparently with approval, the destruction of villages that rejected the Gospel, and who the book of Revelation depicts as a White Horse Rider wielding a sword and wearing bloody garments is equally difficult to portray as such. There are texts about “turning the other cheek,” but such passages always refer to one’s INDIVIDUAL conduct, not to action on behalf of society. That does not mean that ALL war is JUST, only that ALL war is NOT Unjust. Would write more, but a windstorm is coming, and I want to get off my computer and recharge it before the power fails. More later ….

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