Thursday, May 03, 2012

Disappointed with the opposition

I'm pretty disappointed with this blog post, "Why I am not a Pacifist". Not because I disagree with the author, but because I would describe it as a facile piece of writing that shows both surface engagement with the issues and what I would describe as sneaky rhetorical tricks. To be honest, it makes me ask, "This guy is a senior ethics professor?"

I think I can grant some of the opening rhetorical moves. "I am not-Pacifist by conviction", "I would rather be Pacifist", "It's in my personal self-interest to be Pacifist". There is a certain honesty that this posturing provides, and I would happily (indeed do) utilise the same in reverse. None of that advances the argument, it just creates an empathy for our speaker that allows him the space to make his case.

It's the fourth paragraph ("What I have just described...") that actually launches the argument. Heimbach immediately dissembles, when he says "The main difference between [the two] is..." What is the main difference between Just War and Pacifist positions? Surely the answer is simply this: Just War articulates that war (qua armed conflict) is sometimes justified, and Pacifism articulates the position that war is never justified. But Heimbach doesn't identify that at all, instead he characterises Pacificism as "perfectionistic" (pejoratively) and "impossible ever to achieve", while sympathetically portraying Just War as "a form of moral realism".

First it's worth backing up to notice how Heimbach consistently employs 'Pacifism' and 'Just War' as these kind of proper nouns, giving a sense that they are monolithic abstract positions. This is particularly problematic on the Pacifist side as it lacks all nuancing. I think it might be forgivable on the Just War side, because there is more core consensus around what the Just War position entails (though Heimbach neglects to give any account of traditional just-war theory in this post).

Is Pacficism "perfectionist"? I would argue that significant modern Pacifist positions are not naïve, which is what Heimbach is implying, but are very much wide-eyed to the moral realia of the world in which we live. If they are perfectionistic, it is only in the sense that ethical ideologies hold up a standard of perfection to which we are expected to subscribe. Surely that is no less that Heimbach's own views of moral objectivism?

Furthermore, describing Pacifism as a "social ideology" is also misleading. Pacifism is rarely pitched as "we must make the world this way so that we can live without war", and far more regularly, "we must live this way so that the world can be at peace." Pacifism does not depend upon peaceability for practicality, but embodies practicality for the sake of peacability.

Finally, it is a false, if not misleading, dichotomy to suggest that recognising God as the one who ultimately ends war is incompatible with us seeking peace. Heimbach almost seems to say that since only God can end war, we ought not to. To pull my own rhetorical trick, isn't this disturbingly analogical to saying "since only God can remove sin from the world, we ought not to do so but should accept it in part as a sometimes necessary practice in our lives"?

In the next section Heimbach deals with the key question, 'Was Jesus a Pacifist?' His answer is again problematic. Heimbach engages in a form of dualism when he separates 'peace' as spiritual reconciliation with God from 'peace' as civil harmony among peoples. True, Jesus did not launch a Pacifism activist program, but neither should we necessarily expect him to have. Heimbach continues to depict Pacifism as monolithic when he says "Pacifists read civil non-violence into every mention of "peace" in the New Testament". Really? All pacifists read non-violence into every occurrence of 'peace'?

My problem with Heimbach at this point is that he then engages in what I would call some specious exegesis of his own. The only civil non-violence sense of peace that Heimbach can locate is Mt 10:34. And there he suggests that Jesus is explicitly denying Pacifism. And yet most commentators on this passage are quite happy to suggest that Jesus is not implying that he himself is engaged in violence, nor is he suggesting that his followers do so, but that the necessary consequence of Jesus' coming, and his followers' faithful discipleship, will be violent opposition. This is a far step from Heimbach's seemingly 'pro-sword' position.

The second passage cited is Lk 14:31, where Jesus is supposedly applying Just War theory to morally responsible rulers. But if you bother to look up this passage in context, you will clearly see that Jesus is telling a parable. I would suggest that mining a parable for ethical prescriptivism from the characters portrayed is, at the least, an exegetical minefield. Furthermore, the main point of this parable is "to count the cost" of discipleship. Within the gospels, the shape of that costly discipleship is systematically portrayed as a willingness to suffer in the likeness of the suffering Christ.

In a third collocation of Scripture, Heimbach says he refuses to play off the rebuke of Peter in the garden, with Jesus' injunction to carry swords in Lk 22:36. I have written previously about Luke 22:36 and do not intend a full-length exegetical treatment. I, too, "as a responsible moral theologian am not free to read into what Jesus said" [contradictions and personal agenda] (another swipe at Pacifist exegesis, suggesting that Pacifists twist scripture). But suggesting that "Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one" has the plain reading of "after [Jesus leaves earth] they should carry with them and be prepared to use weapons of deadly force to defend as necessary against attack" is disingenous at the least. It's importing a Just War doctrine into a text which is laden with irony, misunderstanding, prophetic fulfilment, and not laden with disciples' post-ascension ethical instruction.

The last point that Heimbach wants to stake his claim on, in this post at least, is the unity of God and his impassible nature and character. I too affirm Jesus as the God of the Old Testament, of the same moral character, and eternally the same. And yet Just War is not the necessary entailment of that position. The origin of New Testament pacifism is not in a change in God's character, but a change in God's economy. The differences don't lie in Him, but in us. We aren't the Old Testament covenant community, but the New Testament covenant community. Jesus comes to us not as Deus nudus, but Deus incarnatus, assuming our nature. And so we must ask questions like, "Are there prerogatives of God according to his nature and status that are not our prerogatives?" Can we uphold a moral framework that distinguishes between what befits God and what befits Humanity? Is it possible for Jesus to act as a Pacifist in a paradigmatic way in his incarnation while still being Judge of the Living and the Dead?

Heimbach's whole post is disingenous in some of its argumentative strategies, as well as engaging in a shallow treatment of the opposing position. Surely a professor of ethics can do better.

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