Sunday 8 October 2006

Karl Barth on peace and war

“The decisive contradiction of the kingdom of God against all concealed or blatant kingdoms of force is to be seen quite simply in the fact that it invalidates the whole friend-foe relationship between one human and another.... The disciples are told: ‘Love your enemies!’ (Matt. 5:44). This is the end of the whole friend-foe relationship, for when we love our enemy he ceases to be our enemy. It thus abolishes the whole exercise of force, which presupposes this relationship, and has no meaning apart from it.... In conformity with the New Testament, one can be pacifist not in principle but only in practice (praktisch Pazifist). But let everyone consider very carefully whether, being called to discipleship, it is possible to avoid – or permissible to neglect – becoming a practical pacifist!”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, pp. 549-50 (KD IV/2, p. 622).


Weekend Fisher said...

Dietrick Bonhoeffer examined the question how a Christian should act when innocents were being killed indiscriminately. He came to the personal conclusion that it would be wrong to refuse the use of force in some cases. While Bonhoeffer acknowledged the full force of loving our enemies and obliterating the line between friend and foe, he distinguished between that and allowing anyone to slaughter innocents. Fine lines.

byron smith said...

it invalidates the whole friend-foe relationship between one human and another
Absolutely - this is why Christians can not destroy their enemies. However, it has not yet answered the question of how kings and governments are to act qua ruler, when they have been given responsibility to punish the wrongdoer and do justice.

John P. said...

A friend of mine is writing a thesis paper on something akin to this: he is arguing that pacifism is more faithful to the christian witness in that it is something that must be incarnated as a praxis...whereas just war theory can only be postulated. more simply, pacifism seems more consistent with the call to discipleship than a "theory" of just war. I think it is a great point for discussion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Weekend Fisher. Always good to hear your thoughtful contributions.

You are right about Bonhoeffer, but it is crucial to remember that while Bonhoeffer did concede the use of force in exceptional circumstances, he believed that the deployment of violence in war - and indeed the conspiracy he joined to assissinate Hitler - could never be guiltless and must always be accompanied by an attitude of penitence and the practice of confession.

One of the things that particularly Americans can learn from Bonhoeffer is what authentic patriotism might look like. His ethical thinking on this matter is reflected in the Oxford ecumenical Conference on Church, Community and State in 1937. Its report on "The Church and the National Community" is still worth reading:

"As with every divine gift, the gift of national community has been and is being abused by men and made to serve sin. Any form of national egotism, whereby the love of one's own people leads to the suppression of other nationalities, or national minorities, or the failure to respect and appreciate the gift of other people, is sin and rebellion against God, who is the Creator and Lord of all peoples. Even more, to see in one's own nation the source and standard of saving revelation, or in any way to give the national divine status, is sin."

That this declaration comes from an ecumenical gathering is important. Remember Bonhoeffer's friend Martin Niemoller, who said, "Because I was an ecumenist, I became a pacifist."

Weekend Fisher said...

Kim wrote << One of the things that particularly Americans can learn from Bonhoeffer is what authentic patriotism might look like >>

LOL, couldn't pass it up, could you? I'm not here to contend for Bush.

I'm also convinced Bonhoeffer was right that his actions were morally questionable, btw. But it's a good reminder that sometimes pacificism is also morally questionable.

To pick on the two sides equally: "just war" is, at its worst, belligerence/hatred/arrogance dressed up in its Sunday best. But that's not to say there is no case for just war. And again "pacifism" at its worst is cowardice/laziness/indecision dressed up in its Sunday best. If there is a time when acting with force is morally questionable, there is also a time when not acting must be morally questionable.

The neutral nations of WWII leave an open question whether they were pacifist or negligent, or whether pacifism under those circumstances was itself negligent.

"Love your neighbor as yourself", in WWII, could not apply only to the Nazis and not also to the Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals who were among Hitler's favorite targets.

I think the kind of pacifists that I respect most are those who take a more active role in confronting the wrongdoing to the point of putting their own lives on the line along with those being slaughtered innocently. If their own lives are on the line along with those being wronged, then they have some right to turn the other cheek because it is their own cheek they're turning.

Anonymous said...

Some questions. When does the refusal to confront evil, when force is necessary to stop it, become complicity in that evil? While we are taught to love our enemies, what if our enemies are committing genocide? Does love preclude using force to stop a grave evil? If so, where is our love for the victims of that evil?

Petter Ö said...

Even though I'm not sure I find a "theory of pacifism" as the way to go...:
Si vis pacem, para pacem

I´ve been to "Taizé-prayer" a couple of times, where we sing the words of Romans 14:17 "The kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the holy spirit". How far away, the kingdom of God, and so hard to practice! Still, how close and near in him, in whom God has prepared the peace, justice and joy for us.

Practically speaking, though, the sharing of the global common goods, the housekeeping of our common oikonomical resources, the providing of just and transparent laws and structures is, I think, the human way to respond to the gift of God.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Too often in times of war we see compromised pragmatists instead of practical pacifists.

Keep it up!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Bonhoeffer became a pacifist in New York while teaching Sunday School, not at the Lutheran church, nor at the prestigious liberal Riverside Church, but at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, brought there by his African-American fellow student at Union Seminary, Frank Fisher (who also hooked him on the spirituals and the blues). There was also the influence of his French colleague at Union, Jean Lassere, a member of the French chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. (Later Bonhoeffer's students found it incredible that Bonhoeffer, a former nationalist like them, had traveled throughout the U.S. and into Mexico with a FRENCHMAN!)

In some ways, Bonhoeffer's joining of the conspiracy against Hitler was an act of despair. The Confessing Church had collapsed. His underground seminary for Confessing pastors had been closed by the Gestapo. The Confessing Church had never really spoken out for Jews as Bonhoeffer had wanted. (Barth called this later his largest regret from those years). Bonhoeffer had 3 times tried to travel to India to study with Gandhi and learn what nonviolence against oppression looked like. Each time the opportunity fell through.

Bonhoeffer's interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount in Nachfolge emphasized giving up rights, refusing revenge, etc. He didn't see the positive command to take nonviolent transforming initiatives. Thus, when he works to resist Hitler and is writing Ethics, there is almost NO reference to the Sermon on the Mount--he couldn't find a way to reconcile the two as a different exegesis would have allowed.

The conspiracy was secular and involved his secular family members. It was the only community Bonhoeffer had left.

I don't think Bonhoeffer answers the problem for us of violence vs. nonviolence in extreme situations like he found himself. Too many people have focused on his participation in the conspiracy (his brother pointed out to him that he didn't even know which end of a gun to hold)as justification for violence and war--ignoring Bonhoeffer's own pronouncements that the conspirators would still be guilty and his questions about what worth they would be after the war--having become accustomed to lying, cheating, sneaking, and killing. They ignore that the original plan was to capture Hitler and put him on trial with Bonhoeffer's father (a noted psychiatrist) to declare him insane. They ignore that Bonhoeffer's role was using his ecumenical contacts to get the Allies to agree to armistice if they were successful in the coup and not continue even after overthrowing Hitler. They ignore that Bonhoeffer's arrest came not from anything to do directly with the conspiracy, but for his role in smuggling Jews out of Germany.
Most importantly, where Bonhoeffer's challenge is strongest to us is with how we should resist authoritarian governments BEFORE the only question is whether or not to attempt an assassination.

If the Confessing Church had roused the population to resist Hitler back when Bonhoeffer first saw the problem, WWII could have been avoided. I fear the judgment of God and of history on the U.S. Church which has been so compliant with the creeping Bush totalitariansim and imperialism for 6 years now.

Anonymous said...

The opposite of violent intervention is not inaction! We are talking about pacifism - from latin pace meaning peace, NOT passivism meaning receptive or inactive. God's peace "shalom" is always active. It takes initiative. It reaches in and interrupts our violent little lives in surprising ways.

Being a pacifist does not mean doing nothing in the face of violence - it means intervening in every way possible to the point of taking the bullet ourselves without using violence as a means to control others. A pacifist can never stand by while someone else gets harmed, but they also cannot believe that they have the right to harm another person even to prevent that person from doing harm.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

What miner said, in spades. Oh, and in reply to an early question by Byron on the role of GOVERNMENT in preventing an intolerable evil if the only options seem to be violence or inaction: Nonviolent Christians, as Yoder constantly remind us, give up the delusion of thinking that we are responsible for making history come out right.

We are responsible for being faithful. After that it is up to God.

Take Darfur: The UN seems stymied in the face of Sudanese obstructionism and the violence of the Janjaweed (sp?). People are contemplating intervention without permission from Sudan. (Bush probably would have already done it except--(a)Darfur has no oil & (b) U.S. troops are completely bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.) But this does not prevent groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Peace Brigades International, etc., IF THEY HAVE ENOUGH VOLUNTEERS AND MONETARY SUPPORT from sending in nonviolent third party teams to intervene--knowing they might be killed, but refusing to kill.

Nonviolent Christians are not stuck waiting on what governments--fallen and rebellious Powers and Authorities that they be--will or will not do. This is why that, in the past, the most creative Christian peacemakers have often been missionaries.

Anonymous said...

I think Byron's point is the crucial one for this whole discussion.

I accept Kim's criticism of my reading of the Apocalypse in my comments on his previous post, although I had not meant to argue that divine judgment will entail violent judgment, just that its imperfect reflection in the judgments executed by rulers in this age may legitimately include violence.

If the king of England is converted he will be a Christian, but still the king of England. His witness to the Kingdom of God as King of England will include the curtailing of violence in the pursuit of his own expansionist ends; but it will also include his just punishment (perhaps violently) of those who do wrong. This making of judgments is precisely part of his obedience to his calling as a Christian. Insofar as other Christians are involved in the execution of these judgments (whether as policeman, prison guard, or soldier), it is possible that doing some form of violence may be part of their obedience to God - a tragic necessity which makes us hope for the final judgment of God, where justice and peace will kiss each other.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

THAT is the Constantinian error: to tailor Christian ethics to "what the emperor can do or not do and still remain emperor."

As a pacifist who tries to be practical, I think that the range of possibilities available other than war are greater than ever: In this regard the writings and work of Gene Sharp are indispensable. I support the campaigns in the U.S., U.K., Australia, & Canada for cabinet-level "Departments/Ministries of Peace" that would help implement these developing tools of alternatives for confronting threats than war.

But Christian ethics is aimed first and foremost at the Church--an international community. We live in permanent diaspora in this Age which is Perishing. There are no "Christian nations" (one of the biggest heresies ever), but Christians scattered among the nations as salt and light, seeking the shalom of whatever polis we land in. If a ruler wants to convert, we do not water down the gospel for her or him, but seek to reshape the nature of the office in light of Christian vision and virtues. If that is not currently possible, the ruler has a choice: the office or the Church.

Anonymous said...

Your argument seems philosophically very tight, Michael, but I'm impressed by how little it seems to rest on a broad view of the Biblical witness. Repeatedly saying, "Well that isn't Christian" is true enough--there's nothing distinctively Christian about the use of force. Neither is it the Gospel. It is, however, often part of the nature of the law. Is wrongdoing to go unpunished? Are the cruel and violent to go unrestrained? Paul doesn't think so, and Jesus never said so. The bulk of the Law and the prophets point against it. I'm with Byron on this point. I see a concern at work in even the highly engaged pacifism described here that doesn't really fit the Gospel, either. It's no good to say, "I'll take a bullet for another", if just after I take a bullet for that innocent, the innocent will take one too. By refraining from force I've put concern for my own moral or spiritual well being over the life of another--perhaps over one weaker than myself. This is not service, and it's not suffering for another--it's vanity and self-righteousness. If Christ is willing to become sin for us, then we ought to be less concerned for our own purity than for the actual well-being of others and willing to risk offense for their sake, trusting in the mercy of Christ. We cannot water down the Gospel (in fact, anything that could be watered down is not the Gospel), but likewise we cannot water down the threat of the law.

The first of Kim's theses looks to me flatly unbibilical. The cross is unmistakeably violent, and also a judgment of violence. We can work from there (indeed, all our work should be from there)--but I cannot just bracket off "The LORD is a man of war, the LORD is his name." It's a neat little game that suggests that all references to wrath, judgment and violence are so easily deconstructible, undermining violence even when they advocate it--but it's also a grossly tendentious reading of scripture to make it that simple. I'm willing to give more of a shot to the pacifistic arguments, but so far I've seen a confidence in them that doesn't accord with the strength of the evidence.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

In the cross, God-in-Christ suffers violence rather than inflicts it. Paul is just as nonviolent as Jesus. I have written (as have many others) on the way that Revelation uses violent imagery in a way that deconstructs violence.

The Hebrew Scriptures are more complex. I referred to Lind's _Yahweh is a Warrior_. While 19th C. evolutionary-type views of "progressive revelation," won't hold up (later views sometimes are more violent than earlier ones), it is still true that the prophets condemn war and violence and prepare for the peace of Jesus: they declare the peace of the Messiah whom we claim to follow. (I wrote a popular-level article on Jeremiah as war resister once.)

The question isn't whether sin is to be punished, but whether God brings good out of evil or whether evil can only be responded to with greater force.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you're not going to distinguish law from Gospel then I can see how that last sentence could hold up (and how you could possibly fall into the rest of your argument). But certainly it's a question as to whether sin is to be punished--sin demands punishment. And don't those same peace-proclaiming prophets say so, in violent detail? Further, don't they call down that same violence on Israel and Judah, in the name of the Lord God? Jeremiah isn't just war resister--he proclaims judgment against Judah. It's one thing to say it's wrong for the nation to fight, quite another to say that the nation's enemies are executing the judgment of God.

So surely God brings good out of evil--just as surely, according to the biblical witness, violence is his prerogative and among his tools. As for Paul being as nonviolent as Jesus, this doesn't necessarily say what you want it to--neither speak against the use of force to execute civil justice.

Anyhow, there seem to be two arguments here, the second coming into play when the first is questioned. The first is that nonviolence is right; the second is that nonviolence is effective. But a challenge to the second can also be a challenge to the first--if nonviolence is not effective in countering violence, then what good is it? It is one thing to die for another, quite a different thing to allow another to die for me (and my principles).

Anonymous said...

I notice a repeated concern by those who are critical of the nonviolent stance being asserted in these posts that it doesn't address the whole Bible - particularly certain aspects of the OT.

Frankly, any efforts to harmonize the whole of the Bible into a univocal whole does more violence to the text than a careful reading of specific passages. We never come to the Bible neutral just as it is not itself a neutral document. We have to be explicit about our hermeneutical principles which Kim is when he says that the Bible must be read through the lens of the gospel. Calvin said, in a similar vein that the word must be interpreted by the WORD - meaning that it must all be understood through the person of Christ as depicted in the Gospels.

The Old Testament does envision YHWH as a warrior God. As Michael so cogently points out in various comments this image of God VERY often has the effect of undermining human violence - because God and his armies are coming to our defense we have no justification for seeking to defend ourselves. In fact, the prophets point to defense of self as a lack of faith in YHWH and THE cause of the exile. Even so, the Bible isn't univocal in its witness, there may be passages that apparently support violence and in those instances we have to use our interpretive principle to condemn them as opposed to the will of God. The Bible is not a manual for life - you wouldn't read psalm 137 as an example of good behavior!

The prophetic voice which points to the use of human violence (even for good ends) as a lack of faith in the warrior God of Israel is the very voice which condemns the person who uses violence to protect their family from an intruder. As Michael said before, we are not called to have control over history, that is God's role! We are called to be faithful, to trust God with the outcome.

Anonymous said...

Furthermore, it is not concern for self-righteousness which drives pacifism. One isn't choosing spiritual purity over the life of another by taking the bullet instead of stopping the intruder. The source of violence is within, we are never pure, never righteous except by participating in God's righteousness. The act of taking the bullet is an act of faith, not selfishness.

Anonymous said...

But miner, one is choosing spiritual purity over the life of another by taking the bullet. Now, that might be right, it might be an act of faith, but there's no question that it's privileging one's own standing (even one's standing by claim of participation in the righteousness of Christ through nonviolence) over that of another. If that seems an unlikely course for faith to take, well, maybe that leads us to question whether it really proceeds from faith.

But again, I think the core theological issue here is a law/Gospel issue. Your remark on hermeneutical principles is a very good one--if Kim says the Bible must be read through the lens of the Gospel, and then proceeds to read it so as to generate a law (nonviolence), I'd say he uses the word "Gospel" in a way that I'm afraid I just don't understand.

As to finer points, I think you have to reject Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets wholesale if you're about to claim that their proclamations of (violent) judgment against Israel and Judah are counter to the will of God. Those are core elements of their preaching, not personal judgments. So we're talking about interpreting the prophets out of the canon or accepting that something might be wrong with our interpretive scheme.

Anonymous said...

Hi Thuloid.

Two points.

(1) The distinction I drew was between Bible and gospel, on which (I think I am right in saying) the Reformers agreed. Of course on the distinction between law and gospel, they did not. My understanding is Reformed rather than Lutheran. Calvin's tertius usus legis takes the law, in the context of the Christian community, to be itself a gift, "not a burden, but a joy; not a restriction, but an aid; not a means for attaining righteousness, but rather a guide for people already redeemed" (I. John Hesselink). Or in Barth's famous reworking of Calvin: the law is the form of the gospel, even as the gospel is the substance of the law.

(2) As for the prophets, one greater than the prophets is here.

Anonymous said...


Yeah, I picked up on the Reformed thing--I was just making it clear where our disagreement really lies, in my view (I have little sense of how I might argue this point from a Reformed perspective--never given that task much thought).

Fair enough on Jesus being greater than the prophets--but that's because those prophets were ultimately preaching Jesus. Unless they weren't, in which case they really aren't authoritative and Jesus really shouldn't have paid so much attention to them.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

My own hermeneutic is neither Reformed nor Lutheran, but Anabaptist--although the Anabaptists, having begun as followers of Zwingli, were probably closer to the Reformed than to Luther on Law & Gospel. Calvin accused the Anabaptists of throwing out the OT, but no one who reads them, especially Menno Simons, could think that. (Menno's writings are filled with OT quotes as well as NT ones.)

The Anabaptist stance is not to reject the OT/Hebrew Scriptures, but to begin with the Gospel witness to Christ as hermeneutical starting point and lense. (Luther begins with Galatians and Romans; Calvin with one foot on the Ten Commandments and one foot on Romans--straddling the Sermon on the Mount?; Wesley begins with the Gospel of John; etc.) Our confessions of faith often even explicitly state, "the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."

Anonymous said...

But, oddly enough, the Gospel witness doesn't condemn the use of force by the governing authorities, and neither does Paul. Both reject individual violent responses; neither suggests that a state has no right to make war or enact justice by force. In fact, Paul admits such a right both in Romans and as described in Acts, in his appeal to Roman authority (and his rights as a Roman citizen). Jesus seems to implicitly admit at least the possibility of such a right several times (as in the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12--it is the right of the master to come and destroy the wicked tenants). Further, what references we have to soldiers or military service in the New Testament are rarely if ever denigrating, and sometimes positive. Nowhere is expressed an expectation that soldiers should give up their duties, and nowhere are those duties equated with wrongdoing. This argument from silence isn't overwhelming in its force, but it does rob the counter-argument of much of its own power.

So we are still left with the positions of early Christians to contend with outside the scriptures--and there are indeed a number of statements which support your arguments. But you have in the past laid much of the shift at the feet of Constantine--this is an interesting move. Under Constantine, the Roman state did not become Christian; it merely ceased to be officially hostile to Christianity. If the Edict of Milan was so transformative in having the effect of making military service acceptable to many Christians, then one must ask what it was they objected to in the first place--surely the reality of military service did not suddenly shift under Constantine. What must have changed was the official persecution of Christians and the expectation of paganism within the army. That is, if a change in merely this aspect was sufficient to remove much of Christian opposition to the military, then I'd think we have to re-examine the underpinnings of early Christian pacifism.

That pacifist views were held from an early date, and that some made arguments for pacifism which extended beyond those objections which the official acts of Constantine could have addressed is undeniable.

Anonymous said...

Hi Thuloid.

It is, of course, assumed in the NT that the Roman government will deploy force - it is, after all, pagan! But as Yoder points out, the "sword" for Paul refers not to the empire's military actions against other nations but to its domestic policing functons. Nor, for Paul (Romans 13:1), does "subordination" to the authorities imply obedience; in fact, it often ended in martyrdom.

As for your reference to the Mark 12 parable, it seems to me inadmissable to draw ethical conclusions from a metaphor, which in any case is descriptive rather than normative.

Third, you are right that nowhere in the the NT are soldiers commanded to resign, but it is very unlikely that NT Christians would have participated in the military. As for the early church, I refer you to my Tertullian quotation.

Finally, your point about the post-Constantinian church is a good one and certainly merits further investigation and discussion. But there is nothing like a little ecclesial domestication to encourage ethical laxity.

Anonymous said...

That distinction of Yoder's re: "sword" seems a very weak one. The boundaries of a state are decided and maintained by force, so the distinction between the force applied inward (police functions) and outward (military action) still depends on the same violence. Further, police functions depend no less on organized violence (or the threat of organized violence, which is the same) than do military actions. Last, in the Roman world this distinction was particularly vague--there weren't police as such, and potentially rebellious client states, provinces, tribes or even contending generals could very quickly turn the general maintenance of order into a full-on military campaign (aren't police actions often this way?). While subordination could mean martyrdom, I don't think that plumbs the depths of what Paul says in Romans 13, or what is said in 1 Peter 2--in both cases, it's clear the view of the governing authorities is as a positive (if limited) good, despite their paganism.

My use of Mark 12 was just to show background assumptions--Jesus simply doesn't question the right of the owner to enact justice by force. A metaphor? Surely, but it's one of several cases in which Jesus could challenge this very notion and does not (and why I'm uncomfortable with readings of the NT which see it as so abundantly clear that this notion is challenged).

Saying it's unlikely that NT Christians would have been in the military misses the point entirely--there are, in the NT, several actual encounters with soldiers some of whom are preached to, come to believe or are credited with faith. None of these are asked to stop being soldiers. Whether this happened a lot or only rarely is irrelevant--the NT gives us some cases.

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