On Doors and Shores and Sides of Roads
I stared at the headline for a while in mute silence: “Austrian police say up to 50 migrants’ bodies found in truck.” It’s the kind of headline that you read and think, “Whatever awful realities will unfold underneath those words, they surely shouldn’t be nicely filed there on the side bar of a website, right underneath news of Celine Dion returning to perform in Las Vegas or Apple’s latest “media event” or the latest round of lies promises being served up by Canadian politicians on the election trail today. They shouldn’t be nicely filed anywhere.
But there they are. And the story is every bit as awful as the headline portends. Worse, actually. In the day since I first saw the headline, the number of dead has risen to 71. And there have been arrests made—human smugglers who apparently cared so little about their “cargo” that they allowed them to suffocate, agonizingly, in the back of at truck on the side of an Austrian road. Children, women, men, whose last memory on this earth will be of gasping for air and pounding on the side of a truck box. Of nobody hearing, nobody listening, nobody caring.
More headlines today. “Up to 200 feared drowned off coast of Libya.” More desperate people fleeing from war, more children, women, men for whom, apparently, the prospect of a long, arduous journey over treacherous seas, and the likelihood of more closed doors should they ever reach land was more palatable than the lives they were fleeing in Syria. Or Iraq. Or Libya. Or some other chunk of land ravaged by war and poverty, some other place where the thought of staying is so awful that even boats and trucks piloted by the smugglers seems preferable. How awful must a situation be to contemplate such things? How bleak must a future seem to put a child on a boat? In a truck?
The refugee crisis worsens by the day. Europe doesn’t know what to do. Canada mostly sits idly by, choosing its words carefully, cloaking inactivity in the vagaries of “matters of security” and unmet promises to resettle comparatively paltry numbers of refugees in our nation by 2014… or 2015… or 2017. And there are times when the response is at least partly understandable—at least for Europe. How do they accommodate so many refugees? How do nations like Greece, Macedonia, and Italy deal with the daily arrival of people—so many people!—with nothing, relying simply on the mercy of strangers? What do they do when their own economies are already lying in ruins? How can they care for tens and hundreds of thousands of hungry desperate people, when they already have so many problems of their own?
And beyond these questions loom larger, seemingly intractable ones. What can be done in and for the places these people are fleeing so that the boats and trucks of human smugglers no longer seem preferable to staying? But that’s kind of like saying, “How can we make wars stop?” Or, “How can we stop bad people from being bad?” It’s so easy to look at the areas these people are coming from and feel nothing but despair and weary resignation.
I am not a politician or a policy-maker. I am not the head of an NGO or a refugee worker or an expert on much of anything. These problems seem impossibly huge to me. And it’s easy—so easy—to read the headlines and fear for the future. It’s easy to see the backlash coming against all these refugees showing up at the doors of the relatively rich, this “plague of feral humans” as one British writer incredibly described them recently. It’s easy to imagine a future of political instability, racism, religious intolerance, and more war. It’s easy to imagine the need stretching far beyond the reach of our (often meagre) reserves of compassion and good will.
As I said, I’m not an expert on politics. But I do read and tell stories for a living because I am convinced that good stories are our best teachers. And one of the best and most difficult stories that I often read was told by Jesus. There was a man lying on the side of a road, broken and bleeding, desperate for help. Jesus doesn’t tell us what sort of man he was—maybe he was a shady character, maybe he had committed a crime, maybe he was one of those “feral humans” that’s always causing problems for the “civilized” folks. Maybe he was a refugee. We don’t know. All we know is that he was lying on the side of the road. And that a couple of religious people passed right on by. And that it was, in the end, a Samaritan of all people—a dirty half-breed, an idolatrous piece of trash, according to many good religious types—who bandaged his wounds, found him somewhere to stay, and paid the bill.
But Jesus, we protest, that’s one guy! What if there were hundreds, thousands, tends of thousands of people lying in the ditch? We don’t have the infrastructure… We don’t know how they would fit in… They’re so different from us… We can’t do it, we can’t be responsible for them… They need their own countries to deal with them… Who’s going to pay the bill?
And what would Jesus say? I don’t know, exactly. Jesus can be unpredictable, hard to figure out at times. But I’m willing to bet that whatever his response sounded like, words like “neighbour” and “mercy” would feature prominently. And probably something to the effect of “go and do likewise.”
There is a group of churches and other interested parties here in Lethbridge, AB who have been working with Mennonite Central Committee for a few months now on bringing two families from Syria to our city. Right now, there are two families that we have been matched with. They come from the city of Homs. Over the course of the Syrian conflict Homs was taken by anti-government rebels and then retaken by the Syrian government, the fighting destroying huge parts of the city. Many people fled the country during the initial fighting between the government and the rebel group, including these families. They have been trying to survive in small town in Lebanon ever since.
For more information about how to help in Lethbridge, click here.
…and then we come to the painful reality of “just war”…..millions are forced to relocate because of the aggressions of those who would use violence to achieve their aims. If history teaches anything, it is that a violent aggressor cannot be appeased. He must be defeated. The advocates of a violent Islamic revolution will have to be confronted sooner or later. The longer we wait the greater the carnage.
Yes, these are excruciatingly difficult questions. One could also say that if history teaches anything, it’s that violence begets more violence. Always.
Self defence is always a moral choice. As is defending the defenceless….someone once said that if his kingdom were of this world his servants would fight…
Refusing to play the violence game is also a moral choice—something that Jesus consistently spoke of and demonstrated, and an approach that he seems to have expected his followers, citizens of the kingdom of God, to emulate.
The same Jesus who at the last supper advises his followers to sell their cloaks and buy swords. That Jesus?
Yes, Paul, that very same Jesus. One cryptic statement that many commentators feel was made only to reference a line from the prophet Isaiah (and a passage that strangely ends with Jesus telling his disciples that two swords is enough for eleven men?) does not undo a lifetime of teaching, nor does it undo the way that Jesus lived and died in the world.
(And then there’s the same Jesus telling Peter to put away the sword—the same sword whose use he supposedly just advocated—a few verses later… And healing an enemy….)
Force, morally applied, is always a deterrent to more violence. Those who use violence to achieve ends will always beget more violence….always….until a moral application of force defeats them.
Well, that would be an interesting claim to defend historically. Although, I suppose you could just say that whenever further violence was deterred, the force originally applied was moral (a circular, if somewhat effective approach). Seems pretty heavily dependent upon who gets to define the terms…
I am no uncritical proponent of pacifism. I’ve written about my struggles in this area before (see here). But I think when it comes to defending “just wars” and “moral applications of force,” I think you will always have a far more formidable opponent than me in Jesus of Nazareth.
Loving an enemy is the right perspective from which to defend yourself from him. It will mitigate against acts of revenge and generational hatreds. The Marshall plan implemented post second world war was a moral recognition of the dignity of an enemy and his people.
This, too, would be a very interesting claim to try to defend historically. 🙂
Peters actions were aggressive and cowardly. Rightly chastised. Further we understand later from dialogue between Jesus and Pilate that though heaven itself has legions of warriors ready to defend him, Jesus defers to his Fathers wishes regarding atonement….no greater thing can a man do then lay down his life for another. Sacrifice your life for another or risk your life in the defence of another….cryptic message indeed . 11 men exclaiming that two swords were available….here’s my personal interpretation Jesus recognizes he has a group of men incapable of anything other than running away and tells them, “it is enough”. Two swords too many in fact. …. As for you doubting the historical evidence of my claim you conveniently ignore my Marshall plan reference….or how about General MacArthur overseeing the reconstruction of Japan 1945-52
The very man responsible for their military destruction..America was once a moral force. Sadly no longer.
I’m not “conveniently ignoring” anything, Paul. If you honestly feel that one verse in Luke 22 outweighs the overall thrust and trajectory of Jesus’ teaching (and example) on nonviolence and somehow provides a justification for modern warfare between nation states, I’m not sure what else I can say. And if you think the Marshall plan outweighs the entire post-Constantinian implementation of of “just war” theory… Well, again. Not sure what to say.
But I fear we have come some distance from the original point of this post, so perhaps the less said the better.
Final thoughts. Luke 22 does not stand in isolation, there are many references made by Jesus that reflect violent outcomes as a part of God’s Providence. Like you I have no appetite for scripture battles over rubric. My spirit is simply certain that part of my responsibility to love my neighbour must include a willingness to defend my neighbour against murderous attack. Even a cursory read of modern history tells me that freedom and goodness, such as it is, only exists in our world because people of courage fought to defend it. A soldier who fights to protect others against injustice and slavery is like a Jesus taking up his cross. A man who refuses to defend and protect against injustice and cites his faith as justification for his fear, is to me, like a fleeing apostle at the time of crucifixion.
What is the overall thrust and trajectory of Jesus’ teaching on violence, do you think, Paul? What do you think he meant his followers to understand when he said things like:
What do you think Jesus would say to someone who refused to resort to violence to defend themselves or others based on their understanding of these specific teachings? Do you think he would call them cowards?
Jesus intends us to be non violent. All violent aggression is sin. Self defence and more importantly to my argument, defending the defenceless, is another matter entirely. In determining a right moral response, Jesus did not instruct/leave us Scripture per se. Rather he created Apostolic succession, through St. Peter. Further he told us that what this succession bound, would remain bound. What it loosened would remain loosened. The church of Apostolic succession has gone to great lengths within the catechism to outline what defines a just response to violence. The churches law in this matter is Christ’s law also. Every Christian who looks to redefine the law outside the church of Apostolic succession is in error. God does not contradict himself….”A house divided will not stand”…since the reformation the church of Apostolic succession has remained united. The reform churches continue to divide and dissolve.
As for the last part of your question. I do not dare to consider what Jesus would judge. For myself though, should these types of atrocities occur where I was able to respond and I did nothing, I would think myself a coward.
A question for you, Ryan. I’m wondering if as a writer and pastor you would consider a rewrite of the good Samaritan, parable. Suppose in your story/sermon the Samaritan arrives on the scene just before two robbers attack a defenceless traveller. How would you have him respond in this circumstance? Not to make it too easy for you 🙂 I would like to bind you with the following context. Just as the Samaritan had all the resources necessary to assist the victim after the attack. He also had the necessary weapons and skills to defend the victim during the attack. In this context what should he do?
Well, if Jesus were the one telling the story, I have little doubt that the Samaritan would have done something uncomfortably counterintuitive and difficult, something that involved loving the ones that he was supposed to hate, something “foolish” that refused to go along with the practical “wisdom” of the world. Something like maybe laying down his own life.
Where in the gospels do you see Jesus making the distinction between violent aggression and self-defence?
Re: apostolic succession, St. Peter, binding and loosing, canon law, etc., well that’s going to be a very difficult argument to get off the ground with a Mennonite. ☺ I come from a faith tradition whose ancestors were persecuted, tortured and killed by both Roman Catholics and Protestants because, among other things, we refused to accept that the church’s law was Christ’s law, because we refused to accept that state and church-sanctioned violence represented a path consistent with the teachings of Jesus. I realize that you do not share this view, but surely you can imagine how an argument that appeals to the “church’s law” might sound just a little paternalistic and hypocritical when held up against the actual historical record. Or do you honestly mean to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church has only and always supported “just violence?”
Re, this statement:
Yes, I already know that you think a nonviolent response be cowardly. That’s why I asked what you thought Jesus might say to someone who based their nonviolent response on his explicit teachings. I wouldn’t have thought this would be a difficult question for you, who often remind me to be bolder in speaking for God because I have the inner witness of the Spirit, etc. 😉
Here’s what the Spirit tells me. Here’s how I think Jesus would respond. Even if it turned out that a nonviolent response was wrong—and that Jesus actually intended for us to resort to the tired cycles of violence that have always represented the predictable ways of the world—I simply cannot imagine the Jesus that I have come to know and love calling such a person a “coward.” I can only imagine him responding with compassion and mercy, and honouring their attempts to be faithful to the words that he spoke while on earth.
Jesus does not make distinction, we do. Jesus does not cover every specific, we must. We must interpret, through spirit, word, canon and imperfect human judgement and sin. We will get it wrong, sometimes deliberately so. The historical wrongs of the church as you describe them have been acknowledged and repented. The church no longer controls armies or political processes. Killing in the name of God has and always will be, a perversion of His will. Defending atrocities against the innocent however seems a reflection of God’s love. Sacrificial love. Laying down one’s life to defend another. Genocides totalling millions of innocent dead have and continue to occur in modern history. To suggest that a forceful defence of genocide is simply an affirmation of, “tired cycles of violence”…or a rejection of explicit teachings of Jesus does not ring true to me. Love of neighbor requires me to protect the innocent if I have the means. Love of murderer does not preclude me from using lethal force should he not cease killing. Should he not agree to lay down arms. Love is particular to context, I suggest to you that taking the life of a man who is about to murder is to “love” him within the context of that circumstance. Protection, not revenge is to me both noble and Christian.
With regard to my aversion to judge cowardice in Jesus name I stand by my claim and see no inconsistency with past pronouncements. If you are now changing your question from,” would Jesus call them cowards” to, “How do I think Jesus would respond”. Let me pray about it and answer you tomorrow.
You’re certainly welcome to respond further tomorrow, Paul. As I reread this thread, I’m not sure how profitable it would be. We see things very differently on this one, and that’s probably not likely to change.
Perhaps a few very general comments would be appropriate to draw this to a close. As I said above, I am no uncritical proponent of pacifism. I feel very keenly the force of arguments such as the ones you have alluded to (particularly when it comes to things like genocide and the many and varied kinds of innocent suffering that our world has always seen). My concerns could mainly be limited to two broad categories:
1. Any application of “just war” depends an awful lot on who is deciding upon the “just-ness” of the war. What seems just to the one holding the gun likely does not seem just to the one on the other end. History is full of examples of human beings spilling rivers of blood, all probably convinced that their cause was just, many probably equally convinced that they had God on their side. Human beings are violent, tribalistic, and vengeful creatures. History would seem to teach that we can’t reliably be trusted to decide which wars are just and which are not (even when these decisions claim to come from institutions of moral authority). Far better to leave vengeance in the hands of the only One who will not corrupt it (I don’t say this lightly—I know that many Christians around the world and throughout history have suffered and are suffering unto death for their convictions along these lines).
2. Anabaptists have always been concerned at how quickly Jesus’ words (particularly hard ones, such as the ones quoted above) have been explained away. “Yes, Jesus said all that, but he couldn’t possibly have meant it! It’s just not practical to turn the other cheek, to refuse to resist an evildoer, to love enemies… The world doesn’t work like that.” And off to war we go. As Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” I’m prepared to concede, like Bonhoeffer seemed to have in his participation in the assassination attempt on Hitler, that there are times when one must, with much fear and trembling, sacrifice one’s ideals to protect the innocent, and entrust oneself to the mercy of God. My concern is that there are far too many times when Christians of all stripes fail to adequately wrestle with Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. If a follower of Jesus should ever march off to war, it seems to me that it should be a decision that makes their soul itself shudder. The kind of militaristic Christianity that one often encounters (particularly from our neighbours to the south) is, in my mind, incomprehensible.
A final word to (maybe) bring it back to some of the themes behind the original post. It’s not at all difficult to trace some of the geopolitical realities behind the current refugee crisis to military decisions in the early 2000’s. An organization like ISIS doesn’t just emerge out of a vacuum. It is a potent cocktail of rage, despair, and alienation that is in part the result of decisions made, of “just wars” waged. It is, at least on some level, the fruit of nations marching off to war convinced that they had truth and morality and God on their side. And now? Well, now things are a bit complicated, aren’t they? I’m not suggesting that all things would be rosy in the world had George Bush not gone to war. Not for a moment. I am, however, suggesting, once again, that there is an irreducibly cyclical component to the application of violence, no matter how righteous one thinks their cause is. Violence begets violence. Something has to break the cycle. And Someone taught us how to do that.
Ryan, after prayer and reflection I can only offer you this regarding your question…I again come up against a sense of impropriety. It is not for any of us to discern the will of God. My urgings of the Spirit are so that I might discern God’ s intentions for me. So that you might. So that others might. The Spirit is intended to move us to righteous action not scrutinize God’s motives or judgements. Everything from God is true and just. It is the “serpent” who would call us to question God’s intentions….so instead I will commit to prayerful examination of conscience and should the world ever turn such that the violence and death experienced elsewhere come to our doorstep, trust in Jesus to lead me to right response…..a couple of final points. The broad strokes of what constitutes “just war” are only found in the canon of the Roman Catholic church. Not the political ambitions of George Bush….or any other politician for that matter. Property and interest will almost always dictate national responses, making war almost always immoral. Think of just war, in broad terms, as a policing action only…. final, more recent examples of what I would contend was a victory for policing/violent response and a gross failure for pacifism. In the 90’s two systematic genocides occurred. One in eastern Europe, one in central Africa. After conclusive evidence that “ethnic cleansing” was occurring in Bosnia, (about 8,000 dead and 50, 000 displaced)Nato response was both swift and collective. Punishing air strikes and economic sanction led to an almost immediate cessation of violence against civilian populations. In subsequent years political negotiations and EU economic incentives have led to what many agree is the framework for lasting peace. Not so in central Africa. The world stood by as almost ONE MILLION people were slaughtered…ONE MILLION…subsequently what is known as the Great African War has taken place this century killing upwards of FIVE MILLION…FIVE MILLION. From the time of our original understanding of events in Africa to this day no coordinated world effort has taken place and the killing continues. The only “world” presence on the ground here, is the Roman Catholic church. Now a target as well as the violence spreads beyond tribal and national identities to include religious ones as well….religious identities are transnational…more available fighters and a broader based war for those who seek war…make no mistake our inaction here has led to millions of unnecessary deaths. The clock cannot be turned back we now have the beginnings of a muslim led war on all things non muslim. This enemy better be overwhelmed sooner rather than later. Millions of lives hang in the balance.
Thanks for adding further thoughts, Paul. I’m not sure what I can say that I haven’t already said and it feels like this is turning into a wordy form of talking past one another. Perhaps it’s best to move on.