Saturday 07 September 2002

Taking up arms against evil

David Weinberger called AKMA’s attention to this article from the New York Times, which poses the theological challenge, “Where was God on September 11?”

Though the Peter Steinfels article is trite and superficial, AKMA’s response was simultaneously heartfelt and sophisticated:

It’s a question much older than last year, of course, and it seems awfully presumptuous for Christians to fret about 9/11 as though they had never heard of the Holocaust. Indeed, the effort to annihilate Judaiism bears an even more penetrating theological twist, since that persecution derived specifically from people’s identity as Israel, as God’s chosen people. Let’s not ask where God was last September until we have a decent response to the question of where God was at Buchenwald.

Which, of course, we won’t be able to do.

That’s why the wisest responses to catastrophic calamities take more of the texture of how we live than what words we say. Our words remain one-dimensional, our words are the same devices that clueless marketers use to whip us into frenzies of self-serving desire. Much as I respect the Rt. Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, he missed a trick when he lamented that “all I had was words.” He had his respectful silence to offer, too—and the energies and integrity and commitments with which he enacts that silence.

AKMA clearly privileges action over words—silence is action, he says, when enacted with passion and commitment. Perhaps as a result of my Catholic upbringing, in which theory and practice rarely coincided, I believe that actions weigh heavily, whereas words are as light and insubstantial as vapor. A person’s behavior speaks more eloquently than anything they might say.

Accordingly I can’t reconcile AKMA’s citing the Holocaust and Buchenwald with what he wrote in a subsequent post on the same subject:

It’s the mark of humans’ inclination to ascertain for themselves that some causes are so important that other people must die, whether those causes be personal or political or religious. That’s one of the cornerstone reasons that pacifists decline to take part in coercive violence: Cain’s attack on Abel, the murderous violence that makes someone else’s life pay the price of my envy or moral outrage or thirst for justice, arrogates to human judgment (however apparently well-justified) the prerogative that belongs to God alone.

The contradiction, as it appears to me, is that the surviving Jews in Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and the other death camps were not liberated by pacifists. Those few Jews left alive were set free by courageous men and women who had fought their way across Europe against determined German resistance—men and women who, whether they were motivated by moral outrage, a thirst for justice, the instinct for self-preservation, or a sense of loyalty to their comrades, took part in a sustained campaign of murderous and coercive violence that resulted in the defeat of the Nazis.

Were they wrong? Or mistaken? If so, what was the pacifist strategy for defeating Hitler, ending the occupation of Europe, and stopping the Holocaust? (And, by extension, for vanquishing the Japanese military forces and liberating the subjugated peoples of Asia.)



Aye, well there's the rub, mate.

How does one decide ahead of time, at least as an individual, whether a war is a "good" war or a "bad" war.

I thought America only fought good wars when I signed up for ROTC. Unfortunately, Vietnam didn't strike me as a good war when I fought there. But that was far too late to make a moral or rational decision about whether to participate or not.

I agree that some wars are worth fighting, that pacifism ony works when somebody else is ready to do your fighting for you.

The problem is knowing which wars are worth fighting and how as an individual you can limit your "responsibility" in a dishonarable war.

Posted by: Loren on 7 September 2002 at 12:26 AM

I fought in the Gulf War, which seemed at the time, at least to my comrades and I, a fairly honourable and noble venture. In retrospect, however, examined with the lens of ten additional years of experience and some study of the political and economic forces at work in that region, I'm not so sure. But I doubt there was any way to tell, at least from the foxholes, if the greater purpose was one aligned with "good".

I think, as Shakespeare said, that "there is a tide in the affairs of men", and that often "we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures". Sometimes that means not being able to see the whole picture. I believe, however, that a mass of people, acting within the bounds of their own individual principles examined honestly, cannot help but to tread the moral path, and thus will steer away from evil on the whole. It is only when they abdicate their own moral governance to someone else -- to a cause, to a country, to a leader -- that great evil can be wrought. It seems to me that the greatest evils in history are greatest because they are accumulations of thousands of smaller evils, done in the name of some cause or under a some standard that demanded its adherents give up their own sense of right and wrong. It is seeing this, at the time, that becomes the crucial task.

I think the imperative, then, is not to seek to "limit your responsibility" in a dishonourable war, but to accept it completely, no matter the cost, and to act accordingly. If everyone did the same, and had the courage to act on it, there would be no dishonour, and I daresay, no war. But there, as you say, is the rub.

Posted by: Michael Granger on 7 September 2002 at 01:09 AM

Words are as powerful as actions. Afterall the medium of prayer is the spoken word.

Posted by: victor echo zulu on 7 September 2002 at 07:18 AM

"a mass of people, acting within the bounds of their own individual principles examined honestly, cannot help but to tread the moral path, and thus will steer away from evil on the whole. It is only when they abdicate their own moral governance to someone else -- to a cause, to a country, to a leader -- that great evil can be wrought."

Michael, I couldn't agree more. But that requires active formation and ongoing examination of one's principles as well as an unremitting suspicion of causes, leaders, and patriotism. That seems a tough ask in societies such as ours, which have been corrupted by materialism.

Whether one should limit or embrace one's responsibility in a dishonorable war I do not know. Research consistently shows that soldiers do not fight for causes or countries but for themselves and their comrades.

Victor, I'm surprised that you say that the medium of prayer is the "spoken word." I've always seen authentic prayer as a private communication between a person and God, in which the words may be spoken or silently voiced. In either case, I regard that kind of prayer as action, not words.

For public prayer, I have a low regard. Much of the time it seems either self-congratulatory, a shallow emotional catharsis, or an overt display of unhealthy group dynamics. This kind of prayer, in my mind, has the same relationship to action as making a list of tasks has to do with actually accomplishing them.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 7 September 2002 at 11:47 AM

Prayer is indeed "a private communication between a person and God" and you're right when you say that "the words may be spoken or silently voiced" - they're words. Sure there is an action in praying - but the medium is the word. Whether the words come out the mouth or are only internalised they're words.

There is also a place for public prayer. Jesus said "where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" and "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven."

Yet paradoxically he also said "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full."

There's power in unity. And unity needs to be expressed in words. Out loud.

[well that's what I reckon anyways]

Posted by: victor echo zulu on 7 September 2002 at 01:22 PM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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