Truly caught on the horns of a theological dilemma

Truly caught on the horns of a theological dilemma March 2, 2012

When it comes to Christian social ethics I have two heroes, but the problem is they are widely considered antithetical. John Howard Yoder and Reinhold Niebuhr. Much of Yoder’s reputation is gained from contradicting Niebuhr. And of course, much of Niebuhr’s reputation was gained from contradicting pacifism. Admittedly, the pacifism Niebuhr was against was not Yoder’s. He even tipped his hat to Anabaptists as a needed witness. He was against the liberal Protestant pacifism of the social gospel movement (people like Edwin Dahlberg). Nevertheless, insofar as Niebuhr thought ALL pacifism is wrong and Yoder thought pacifism (Christocentric like his or liberal) is right, they are opposites on that and many other issues.

Yoder has in recent years enjoyed a revival of interest, probably mainly through Hauerwas. Niebuhr’s influence continues, of course, as he is almost always named as “the most influential Christian thinker” by politicians. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama have so identified him.

Of course, I don’t see how a Christian COULD be president and NOT appreciate Niebuhr’s approach to social ethics. It would certainly be difficult to be president and have Yoder as your social ethics mentor.

My problem is that when I read Yoder I find myself saying “Amen” a lot–to almost everything he says. I am convinced that he was right about New Testament, original Christianity and especially the teachings and example of Jesus and how they ought to apply to Christian living today. The church is supposed to be that light set on a hill, living by a different set of values from the rest of the world (not that they can’t sometimes overlap). For example, the way of the world is coercion; the way of Jesus is love. I am convinced that Jesus would not want his followers to engage in deadly force.

Yoder’s social ethic is focused on obedience. Obey Jesus and let the chips fall where they may. Obedience is our calling; effectiveness is God’s business. We are not called to manage history; we are only called to live as Christ instructed us to live. Amen.

When I read Niebuhr (e.g., An Interpretation of Christian Ethics or his essays in Love and Justice) I also find myself saying “Amen” a lot. Niebuhr believes it is irresponsible for Christians to abdicate responsibility for the world and he equates pacifism with that. He doesn’t justify war as good, but he believes it is sometimes a necessary evil. He agrees with Yoder that Jesus taught and modeled radical love. They basically agree on the Sermon on the Mount–it must not be watered down or glossed over. Niebuhr thinks it is possible for the individual Christian to live by it somewhat consistently. And he agrees that we OUGHT to live by it perfectly consistently. But he also thinks this is a fallen world where Christians must sometimes hold their noses and do things contrary to the Sermon on the Mount. Effectiveness matters and sometimes requires compromise. That’s where Yoder disagrees.

John Stackhouse (Regents College) wrote a book a couple years ago entitled Making the Best of It. I reviewed it for Books & Culture. It’s an excellent evangelical re-statement of Niebuhr’s social ethic. I found myself agreeing whole heartedly.

On the other hand, reading Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference, convinces me Yoder was right. War is something Christians ought to oppose and never participate in or support.

Well, you see my dilemma. I’m divided within myself. I agree with Yoder that the Christian life, including the life of the church, is one of radical obedience to the love Jesus taught and modeled including “Resist not evil” and “love your enemies.” I also agree with Niebuhr that effectiveness in abolishing injustice is part of the Christian’s calling (including the church’s calling). When Hitler was rampaging through Europe our duty was effectively to stop him. I also agree with Yoder that the church’s main duty is peace making by being a peaceful witness to the Lamb.

Is there a way to reconcile these two impulses-one toward radical, uncompromising obedience and one toward Christian effectiveness and responsibility for society that sometimes requires compromise (e.g., to abolish injustice using coercion if necessary)?

Occasionally I look to Bonhoeffer as a guide. Not as a guide in the sense of “Here’s a check list to go through at the end of which you’ll know what to do.” Bonhoeffer was no advocate of casuisty. But a guide in the sense of feeling resigned to the fact that occasionally in this world an evil arises so great that one has to set aside perfect obedience to the new law of love and hold one’s nose and do what it is necessary and trust God to forgive.

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist–until he was handed the opportunity to participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler. I think he remained a pacifist through that. I don’t think his participation (he volunteered to pull the trigger) was due to a policy of putting effectiveness over radical, uncompromising obedience Niebuhr style. Rather, it had to be something like Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical.”

IF we think Bonhoeffer made the right decision, even if it was in another sense wrong, then it seems our involvement in World War 2 was justified in the same sense–not due to some policy of just war but due to having no alternative except to allow a madman to take over much of the world and commit genocide against many groups he hated.

The problem, as I see it, is that AFTER WW2 most previously pacifist Christian groups dropped pacifism altogether and embraced war as good (something to be celebrated).

That example, Bonhoeffer, doesn’t exactly reconcile Yoder and Niebuhr, of course, but it gives one instance of a person who, while holding fast to pacifism as the norm, embraced violence as the exception (as a necessary evil). Let’s imagine that the Allies liberated Bonhoeffer before he was hanged. (That almost happened.) Would he have then been a Niebuhrian defender of war? I don’t think so. I think he would have remained a pacifist and simply appealed to the exceptional circumstances to justify (not make righteous) his decision to participate in the plot to kill Hitler.

My point is, the only way forward I can see, to get off the horns of the dilemma, is to stand with Yoder as the norm but remain open to exceptions when circumstances absolutely require them. Some evils are so horrendous that they need to be overcome quickly and the only way to do that is coercion and sometimes even violence. The response is not to create a justification system to prepare for them, but to be the kind of persons who know when they arise and how best to respond. Bonhoeffer was that kind of person.

As a general rule, I think it is true that God does not call Christians or the church to manage history. He calls us to obedience to the law of love. Coercion using deadly force is always sin but not always wrong. I realize that’s dialectical, but I don’t know any way out of that.


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