November 2, 2012

Is Christian Charity Merely Ambulatory?

The Good Samartian

By Keith Pavlischek

Of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the great Christian ethicist and ordained United Methodist Paul Ramsey famously asked:

What do you imagine Jesus would have had the Samaritan do if in the story he had come upon the scene when the robbers had just begun their attack and while they were still at their fell work? Would it not then be a work of charity to resort to the only available and effective means of preventing or punishing the attack and resisting the injustice? Is not anyone obliged to do this if he can? (The Just War, p. 501)

Ramsey invited us to ask these questions because he believed that the way in which a Christian answered them created in a “fork in the road,” for Christian conscience. One fork led to the just war tradition. The other led to some form of perfectionist (or sectarian) pacifism.

Ramsey was trying to clarify what the requirement of Christian charity might mean in concrete political terms. Christian pacifists and non-pacifists would all agree that it was a work of charity or neighborly love for the Good Samaritan to give help at some personal cost to the man who had been attacked by thieves and left for dead on the road to Jericho. That was, in sum, the point of the parable. But, Ramsey went further. No doubt, we would also agree that it may have been a work of charity for the innkeeper to be ready to receive the wounded and beaten man. And would it not also be an act of charity, he asked, for the innkeeper to conduct his business in such a way as to remain solvent so that he would be able to extend such charity to that do-gooder, the Good Samaritan?

So far so good. But then Ramsey proceeded to the next step suggesting “it would have been a work of charity, and not justice only, to maintain and serve in a police force along the Jericho road to prevent such things from happening to travelers.” Could that be an act of Christian charity? Surely, Ramsey said, “an ambulance theory of Christian charity is not enough, but police action and other preventive actions are needed as well.”

You would think that we could reach a consensus on that much, but we live in an age of neo-Anabaptist gurus, who urge upon us the notion that the Cross, as they say, is the model for all Christian social and political action. Since Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross was obviously an act of suffering non-resistance, it seems quite difficult to see how our contemporary neo-Anabaptist gurus could escape a purely ambulatory theory of Christian charity. But that doesn’t keep them from trying.

We know why sectarian or perfectionist pacifists would stop right there. They would agree that the civil authorities could and should set up a police force on that road to Jericho. They would also agree that the civil authority who assigned them that task have authority from God to bear the sword to prevent thieves and robbers from assaulting innocent travelers. But at the same time, they insisted, Christians could not serve in that police force, at least not if, in bearing arms, they would be required to threaten or use violence even to prevent robbers and thieves from assaulting travelers on that road. For these sectarian pacifists, serving as a Christian police officer on the road to Jericho could not be considered an act of Christian charity, because the office of serving as a police officer, requiring as it might an act of “violent resistance” against evil doers such as robbers on the road to Jericho, was “outside the perfection of Christ.” Or, as contemporary neo-Anabaptists might put it, such is not the way modeled by Christ on the Cross. In sum, Christians shouldn’t be police officers but they weren’t about to tell them that the only response to thievery and robbery on the road to Jericho was one of nonviolence either.

But what of contemporary evangelical neo-Anabaptist pacifists, such as Shane Claiborne? They seem to agree with sectarian pacifists in rejecting the notion that a Christian serving as a police officer on the road to Jericho could be a understood as a Christian act of charity, especially if preventing an attack on an innocent traveler required the resort to police “violence” against the robbers and thieves. But here the contemporary neo-Anabaptist goes a step further. Unlike older evangelical sectarian pacifists (represented by the historic peace churches), they aim to instruct the civil authorities in the way of “nonviolence.” For the contemporary neo-Anabaptists, nonviolent direct action is always morally superior to the use of force regardless of its effectiveness in preventing or deterring criminal violence.

To be sure, these neo-Anabaptist gurus always try to convince us that nonviolent direct action would be more effective if we just tried harder to master this or that nonviolent direct action strategy, a claim that is absurd on its face and is sufficient to reject such nonsense outright. But Ramsey, being a clear thinker on such matters, thought the view theologically absurd as well:

One thing seems to me for sure: Jesus would not have told a parable about a band of Good Samaritans who, confronted by this choice between robbers and their intended victim, “went limp” on the Jericho road in the belief that “non-violent resistance” is qualitatively always more righteous than the use of armed force. The infinite qualitative difference is between resistance and non-resisting, sacrificial love.

Ramsey has it exactly right.

The difficulty here is that contemporary neo-Anabaptists embrace a theology (the Cross as a model for all Christian political activity) that, because Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross is an obvious case of suffering non-resistance, seems to require a purely ambulatory understanding of Christian charity, at least when it comes to politics and public policy. Various types of sectarian pacifists could live with that because they embraced a radical dualism in which they withdrew from politics and judicial life.  But contemporary neo-Anabaptists, can’t seem live with those sectarian implications.

But the price they pay is theological and political incoherence. The cost of their repudiation of such sectarian pacifism is the embrace of a highly implausible and remarkably naive theory on universal superiority of nonviolent resistance.

Ramsey (and the great tradition of the Christian Churches) do indeed insist, of course, that bearing arms as a police officer on that road to Jericho is indeed a genuine act of Christian charity. And he tells us why we non-pacifist Christians should reject the insistence that nonviolent resistance is always morally superior to the resort to armed force. We’ll let him have the final word, until we take this up again in our next post:

If then out of this self-same Christian love and responsibility one makes the decision that resistance is the necessary and most loving thing to do for all concerned, if one judges that not to resist is to have complicity in the evil he will fail to prevent, then the choice between violent and non-violent means is a question o f economy and in the effective force to use.  The judgment must be one of over-all effectiveness, untrammeled by any prior or absolute decision that non-violent direct action may be moral while violent direct action cannot be.


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  • Alex

    Does this extend to violent resistance against a corrupt government as well. If a government slowly encroaches on a peoples ability to serve God, can we do our part to resist and rise against the government?

  • Kirkion

    This post highlights an interesting point, which is that Christian pacifism and participation in the public square are in severe tension. The original Anabaptists resolved this tension by attempting to utterly withdraw from the world.

    The Anabaptists did this because of an honest recognition that government is inherently coercive, that the functions of government all ultimately revolve around maintaining a monopoly on violence. Thus the theological question was settled for them (obviously it was a great deal more difficult in practice).

    I personally think that all of this hullaballu about non-violence is based on a few modern experiences, such as the American civil rights movement and the Indian Independence movement which are embraced without any reflect as to the historical context which made them successful. Essentially, without a system with a basic respect for fundamental human rights such as speech and assembly (oh and religion probably goes in their somewhere), non-violent movements wouldn’t even get off the ground. It should probably be noted, that basic structures of self-governance, institutions and the faith of the people in them, are also present.

    But non-violent direct action is often presented as some kind of universal panacea, that if only a group would truly dedicate themselves to non-violence then their message of love would magically convert all who encountered it, and these tides of peace would eventually sweep across the world ending war… or so the drivel goes.

    In fact, all we have to do is look at the Arab Spring to see what happens when non-violent groups meet violent groups in a system without basic respect for human rights, a tradition of self-governance, and strong institutions. The violent groups (which includes the Muslim Brotherhood), used violence tactics and intimidation, as well as blatant fraud to silence their foes. The genuine secular and liberal Muslims are dead or in hiding. That folks is what happens when a genuinely violent group meets a non-violent group.

  • Ben Welliver

    Jesus’ remarks about turning the other cheek are from the Sermon on the Mount, a block of teaching that is aimed at believers, not the world at large. What is there about that that is so hard for pacifists to grasp?

    Incidentally, I just can’t see Mr Pacifist Claiborne following through with his teaching and ending up on a cross. Every word that comes out of his mouth is intended to conform Christian belief and practice to the secular world. Jesus told his disciples to take up their cross daily, meaning that being a true disciple was not not easy in a fallen, sinful world, but if we followed Claiborne we would’t find it hard at all – just act like a non-Christian and drop the name “Jesus” into your conversation once in a while, that’s all it takes.

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  • http://gregoryccochran.com doccochran

    Great post. Thank you very much for the thoughtful article. It reminds me of a very well written article in the journal Philosophia Christi by Myron Penner. The article is titled, “The Pacifist’s Burden of Proof.” Like some of your other posts I’ve read, Penner attempts to turn the tables on the pacifist assumption and calls for an argument rather than an assumption. Good work.

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