William J. (Billy) Abraham has a new book out called Shaking Hands With the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology. It was recently featured in the American Spectator, and I’m fascinated by this article & book. I recommend you read it. I once saw Billy Abraham and Stephen Long (Marquette), go at each other on a panel discussion at the Wesley Theological Society annual meeting. It was pretty entertaining.
I confess that I do not have the kind of mind that can pick Billy Abraham apart theologically or philosophically. I’m sure he could talk circles around me. But every time I hear Abraham speak all I can hear is Reinhold Niebuhr with an Irish accent (he was born in Northern Ireland). Niebuhr’s realism is the kind of rationale that agrees that Jesus teaches non-violence, but then says it’s not a realistic option because it would put the most vulnerable in danger without strong people to defend them (with force if necessary). It’s the most common way to get around Jesus’s teaching on the matter.
Realism works well as a Christian philosophical school as long as you are absolutely sure which side is your side – which requires identification with a national interest above the kingdom of God – and that you can define the opposition as being absolutely morally corrupt and self-deceived, while simultaneously excusing all of the ways in which you are corrupt and self-deceived. That’s basically what Abraham tries to do in this book. (Aside: I think Hauerwas offers an effective counter argument. Pacifism is too passive. He recommends militant non-violence, whereby the strong still fight for the weak. They just do it non-violently.)
I think Abraham’s logic breaks down for the same reason Niebuhr’s does. Abraham’s critique is that the elements of Jesus’s teaching that advocate non-violence are meant to guide interpersonal relationships and not nations. In other words, give your heart to Jesus but your ass belongs to the State. I think that there are actually some good arguments against Christian pacifism, but Billy Abraham isn’t making one of them here. I don’t get anything from him I don’t get from feminist critiques of non-violence.
Ultimately Abraham fails to answer the one essential question. How does it end? Will the violence of the state against terrorism stop terrorist violence, or simply create more violence? To put a finer point on it. How does the kingdom come? Does it come through the sword or through love and self-sacrifice. It seems to me that the cross teaches us the answer. Abraham doesn’t seem to want to recognize it. Here’s a quick excerpt from the book against Christian non-violence:
Christian pacifists have taken isolated elements in the teaching of Jesus, say, in the Beatitudes, that are meant to apply between persons, and extended them to apply between state and state, or between states and their citizens. They fail to see that the anger of God in judgment is the anger of love not hate. They sin the sin of refusing the God-given vocation to exercise the office of arrest and judgment. They cannot see that love in public relations “takes the form of mutual respect, of law, justice, liberty, and even help—especially to the weak.” As a consequence of these mistakes Christian pacifists are bereft of positive illumination when it comes to the right ordering of our political life together. In reality they either opt out of political life altogether, or they fall back upon the platitudes of pragmatic pacifism, or they buy into negative stereotypes of the state and nation that correlate conveniently with their ideological commitments.