Friday, May 28, 2004

Active Pacifism

I've been pondering some of the shifts that have been going on within my own heart over the last few weeks, and the various attempts I've made to capture some of that movement in words. I find language so inadequate sometimes. How do we give voice to the heart?

I really tried to stay rational, and even "politically savvy" for a long time. Not so long ago, I was seriously considering the wisdom of sending more troops over to Iraq, to establish better security. But eventually, the stories coming out broke my hard heart. Instead of blaming "them," I faced the truth; I also share the responsibility for over 11,000 civilian deaths. I gave our leaders the benefit of the doubt, and did not actively resist this war when it began. When Colin Powell addressed the United Nations, I believed him. If Powell said we have to go in, then maybe we do. I remained silent.

It was the reports of the massive civilian deaths in Fallujah that got my attention. It didn't take much looking around to see that there had been high civilian casualties from the beginning. That troubled me. And, still no WMDs. Maybe we had been hoodwinked. But, wanting to be sensible, I looked for alternative military plans, still convinced there was a way out, even if we had made a terrible mistake.

In the last few weeks, the prison tortures, the "mission from God" talk from Boykin and Bush, Nick Berg, and the consistent description of Iraqis as "the enemy" finally forced me to realize that I couldn't fix it; that none of us can fix it. And then I wept.

And then I prayed. Sure, I'd been praying all along; for those in danger, both American and Iraqi. But those prayers were more like asking for God's sanction of what was happening. This time, I offered a prayer of surrender. This thing has spun out of control. I don't think we can fix it. We are killing people in Your name. And those with whom we fight are also killing people in Your name.

No blinding flash of revelation. Charlton Heston's voice did not bellow down from on high. But the tears stopped. And there was a calmness that actually made me feel a little guilty, tucked away in my safe little house.

Eventually, one phrase came to mind. I think I recently heard this phrase in something Frank Griswold wrote. Maybe it was from a book I read some time ago. Anyway, my point is, this wasn't anything weird like some word of prophesy (yes, I was a Pentecostal for a brief time when young). It was more a remembering; something forgotten in the background being ushered onto center stage. It was the phrase, "...for the sake of the world..."

My heart leaped at that, like a young pup who almost snatches off your fingers along with the Scooby snack. My head is still playing catch up. But, for me, I think, or I suppose I should say I feel, like this is the way forward.

It's not about me, or my family, or my church, or my nation. As a part of the Body of Christ, I exist, we exist, for the sake of the world.

Jesus said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." For the sake of the world, we must stand for life, not destruction.

It is not about just this war. Iraq is the symptom of a disease that seems to have plagued humanity from the beginning; the disease of violence; which left unchallenged mutates into a demon known by the name war.

The cycle of violence, the strong victimizing the weak, the weak attempting to escape being a victim by preying on the weaker, can stop with me, if I refuse to respond to violence with violence; if I refuse to give evil for evil. When I am reconciled with my victims; when I refuse to strike back, the cycle has been broken.

I'm still trying to work this out. What I do know is that I don't believe that pacifism means we have to be passive. When Jesus took up the whip and cleared out the money changers, he wasn't exactly the passive gentle Jesus meek and mild my Sunday School teachers presented to me many many (well, maybe not that many) years ago. When Jesus stood up to the Pharisees and Saducees, he was not a doormat.

I think the way forward is active pacifism, or non-violent resistance, as taught by Jesus, Tolstoy (The Kingdom of God is Within You), Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The idea that Christians cannot resist evil may have originated with Augustine's understanding of Matthew 5:39; "But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." One of the most intriguing understandings of that passage that I have come across is from Walter Wink;

The word translated "resist" is itself problematic; what translators have failed to note is how frequently anthistemi is used as a military term. Resistance implies "counteractive aggression," a response to hostilities initiated by someone else. Liddell-Scott defines anthistemi as to "set against esp. in battle, withstand"...

...In short, antistenai means more in Matt. 5:39a than simply to "stand against" or "resist." It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection. Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run counter to everything he did and said. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. Perhaps most importantly, he cautions us against being made over into the very evil we oppose by adopting its methods and spirit. He is saying, in effect, Do not mirror evil; do not become the very thing you hate. The best translation is the Scholars Version: "Don't react violently against the one who is evil."

"If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Why the right cheek? A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. An open-handed slap would also strike the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days' penance. The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did the fine was exorbitant. The Mishnaic tractate Baba Qamma specifies the various fines for striking an equal: for slugging with a fist, 4 zuz (a zuz was a day's wage); for slapping, 200 zuz; but "if [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz." But damages for indignity were not paid to slaves who are struck (8:1-7).

A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission.

Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus' audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5:39b-41, Jesus' listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims ("If anyone strikes you...wants to sue you...forces you to go one mile..."). There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.

Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, "Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me."

Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality. Even if the superior orders the person flogged for such "cheeky" behavior (this is certainly no way to avoid conflict!), the point has been irrevocably made. He has been given notice that this underling is in fact a human being. In that world of honor and shaming, he has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, "The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating."
Read Wink's complete article. It is excellent, and provides some specific guidelines, which he calls "Jesus' Third Way." He concludes with these words that are worth noting;

Out of the heart of the prophetic tradition, Jesus engaged the Domination System in both its outer and spiritual manifestations. His teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence. Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight. It is a way--the only way possible--of not becoming what we hate. "Do not counter evil in kind"--this insight is the distilled essence, stated with sublime simplicity, of the meaning of the cross. It is time the church stops limping between just war theory and nonresistant pacifism and follows Jesus on his
nonviolent way.
It is time to stand up. It is time for acts of civil disobedience. Over 11,000 Iraqi civilians have been robbed of life. The killing must stop, not just for their sake, or yours or mine, but for the sake of the world.

J.

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