Thursday, July 19, 2012

Answering Allison: Pacifism and Institutional Ethics

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The second flawed argument that Allison makes against pacifism is acheived by bifurcating personal and institutional ethics. He writes:

Jesus and Matthew and the pre-Constantinian Christians were outsiders or belonged to minorities, as have most proponents of pacifism. Now outsiders and minorities are not, by definition, responsible for the institutions of society. This circumstance makes it easier for them to promulgate ideals that seemingly take little or no account of the conflicts that inevitably arise when the follower of Jesus becomes involved with such institutions. But others, in contrast to Jesus and Matthew, have found themselves both Christians and members of governmental organizations; and they have necessarily found new ways of understanding 5:38-42. Rather than condemning the exegetical changes brought by the Constantinian revolution we should regard them as inevitable and consistent with the fact that the Sermon on the Mount offers examples that call the moral imagination into play.

No wonder I didn’t find my moral imagination inspired reading Allison’s work. His idea of moral imagination is the ability to re-imagine Christian ethics if Jesus had wanted to be involved in the same things we want to be involved in. Allison actually makes a number of very telling concessions in the above quote. For starters, he admits—as do most responsible historians and biblical scholars—that the pre-Constantinian (or at least up to the time of Marcus Aurelius) church did in fact understand the Sermon on the Mount as enjoining total non-violence on Christians. He also admits that this interpretation, the antique interpretation, directly conflicts with the exigencies of governmental involvement. (So far, he sounds almost like a Christian anarchist, no?) Finally, he admits that his reinterpretation of Christian ethics only works if you admit (1) that Christian comingling with government is inevitable and (2) that the teachings of Jesus (not to mention the example, which modern Christians, he admits, incidentally contrast with) are intended to be inspirational rather than normative.

Of course, that’s where he loses me. I do, obviously, agree with the accepted historical fact that the early church was pacifist. I also, clearly, agree that the obvious conflict between the traditional Christian ethos and the new involvement with government constituted a conflict for fourth century Christianity at large. What I cannot accept is that the choice of power over ethics was inevitable—unless, of course, we mean by that temptation and succumbing to it are inevitable. Allison speaks about the political ascendency of Christianity as something which occurred by happenstance, something which the Christians had no control over and for which they are therefore not responsible. Then, the reinterpretation of Matthew 5 changes from a deviation to necessarily finding new ways of understanding the text. Of course, Christian involvement in government is by no means mandated. It was not a historical inevitability. It is not a present imperative.

When it is realized that Christianity will be just fine—dare I say better off—without getting into bed with human structures of power, then Allison’s argument falls apart. Christian politics not being inevitable, we return to the fateful decision (condensed and dramatized as if it were a single deliberative moment) between Christian ethics as they were preached by Christ and as they have always been practiced and a modification or total abandonment of them in an effort to pursue what seems right on the surface. If only there were a biblical example that might offer guidance, say the disciples’ choice between allowing Christ to die as he taught them he must and taking up arms in his defense. And if only Jesus gave a clear teaching in response to this, say Jesus rebuking Peter for his armed defense or telling Pilate “if my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight.” Of course, if, like Allison, you believe that biblical teaching and example are intended exclusively or primarily as stimulants for the moral imagination, then these examples can be creatively reexamined to fit with whatever happens to us, quite passively, as the human race floats aimlessly through history.

What ultimately struck me, however, is the somewhat less logically rigorous but more evocative nonsense of dividing personal behavior into essentially occupational categories. Set aside for a moment that Allison gives no biblical reasoning for his separation of the two categories, no testimony of Jesus for how governments are allowed to operate by a different moral code than people, and consider instead the ethical absurdity of that line of reasoning. Allison is of the belief—as, notably, was Augustine, the founder of modern just war theory—that if a man walks up to you with a gun and murderous intent, you as a private, Christian citizen should not defend yourself. If, however, that same day, you happen to be wearing a uniform and badge, it magically becomes ethical for you to shoot that assailant in the face because you are an agent of the government which operates by a different set of ethical rules. Our society realizes the absurdity of such a position and makes self-defense permissible. Pre-Constantinian Christian ethics realizes the absurdity of this defense and labels institutional violence immoral. Only Allison (of course, not only Allison, but follow me here) believes that the tension can be maintained. When Obama kills a thousand men through the office of the presidency, it is just. If I were to kill the same thousand men, it would be unjust. It simply does not compute.

No comments:

Post a Comment