Arguing For and Against Capital Punishment

The response from younger evangelicals to the Tsarnaev ruling last week was predictable enough. It amounted to what Derek Webb sang many years ago in “My Enemies are Men Like Me”: “Peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication / It’s like telling someone murder is wrong / And then showing them by way of execution.”

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The Narrow Vision of House of Cards

Spoilers below spoilers below do not blame me for spoiling it if you read this there are spoilers below. Ahem.

Since the debut of House of Cards‘ third season last week the reviews have been a mostly consistent blend of “meh” and “zzzz.” Those reviews are basically right, but a further point needs to be made about the show’s failings in order to understand why the show has gone from an exciting (if also horrifying) first season to a mostly dull and tedious third season.

It’s become a cliche to contrast the 2010s Washington-based hit TV show about politics, Cards, with the 1990s version of the same, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. In most ways the contrasts are obvious–Obama-era disillusionment with Clinton-era hopefulness, Obama-era crises with Clinton-era solutions, etc. But in one way the two shows look more alike than different: for both to be seen and to be in Washington doing political work are one and the same.

Near the end of West Wing‘s run President Bartlett’s former chief of staff Leo McGarry gives a memorable speech to the rest of the Bartlett staffers, telling them that they only have a short time left in the White House and that they can accomplish more good in that limited time than most people can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Though quite different in how it sees the work done in Washington, Cards has a similar tendency.

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The Demands of Love in Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6)

image credit: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/albus-dumbledore/images/7749338/title/albus-dumbledore-photo

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Fleur Delacouer, a student from a French school of magic visiting Hogwarts, says that her school would never tolerate the silliness that is commonplace at Hogwarts: “eef a poltergeist ever entaired into Beauxbatons, ‘e would be expelled like that!”

JK Rowling’s series is filled with characters unusual not only for their characteristics, but for the way they are welcomed at Hogwarts.

Some of these are marginal characters–the schools many ghosts come quickly to mind. Others are much more important to the story. One teacher is a former Death Eater–a supporter of Voldermort, the main villain of the series. And yet he is welcomed at Dumbledore’s Hogwarts. Another teacher was expelled from the school when he was a student but allowed to stay  at Hogwarts and work as their gamekeeper. Still another is a werewolf, something of an untouchable in wizarding society yet he too is warmly received at Hogwarts.

Similarly, a certain amount of unusual behavior is also tolerated. Fred and George Weasley, the older brothers of one of the series’ protagonists, are the frequent culprits here as they are consummate jokers. Over the course of the series they play a variety of pranks on students and teachers, ranging from giving their friends candies that temporarily turn them into canaries to more serious “violations” like turning a section of the school into a swamp.

Yet for all the imprecision, chaos, and oddity that marks Hogwarts, there is an order to it, else the school wouldn’t function. But it’s the nature of that order that merits close attention. It’s not loose per se. Minerva McGonnagall, one of Rowling’s most enjoyable characters who is played by the delightful Maggie Smith in the movies, is a strict disciplinarian. And when students are given detention or some other form of punishment, it is enforced. But standing behind this order at Hogwarts is the thing Dumbledore speaks of in nearly every extended monologue Rowling gives him: love. And this love causes the school to adopt a radically different order than that of the world outside Hogwarts where the technocratic, bureaucratic Ministry of Magic rules. (Spoilers below the jump)

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The Politics of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Dialogue with Chris Schaefer

An old high school friend tweeted: “It’s a Wonderful Life has be the most anti-Tea Party movie ever.” I rakishly tweeted back: “False.” Rather than attempting to hash out this disagreement within the confines of 140 characters, we resolved to do a Gladwell vs. Simmons sort of thing, exchanging long-winded emails to see if we could hash it out.

My friend, Chris Schaefer, has led a peripatetic life ranging from Oklahoma to Morocco. As of late, he seems to have settled in Paris. We agreed to let him have the first word:

Chris: I was being a good American and doing my annual Christmas-time viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life when I had this moment. It was one of those eyebrow-scrunching, lip-twisting, just-wait-a-second-there moments: Conservative Americans cherish Frank Capra’s classic, and yet important parts of the film don’t seem terribly conservative. I wondered if conservatives’ appreciation for family, faith, and community in the movie doesn’t cause them to miss echoes that the original audience would have picked up on immediately.

It's a Wonderful Life It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946 right as the United States was exiting an extremely difficult decade and a half. There’s a reason why Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the greatest challenges that animate the film are bank runs and lack of affordable home ownership–the difficulties of The Greatest Generation in Bedford Falls as it were. These two issues play out in significant ways. George Bailey doesn’t go on his own honeymoon because he has to use his own personal savings to pay his clients who are caught up in the uncertainty of a bank run. And the entire business concept of the Bailey Building and Loan was based on providing home ownership for the poor of Bedford Falls, which was not so much a business as a non-profit social organization if we can take Potter’s critique and the bank-examiner’s presence as any indication.

So what happened between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945? The New Deal. And in the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the creation of two organizations that addressed both of these issues. The Banking Act of 1933 created the FDIC (whose sticker you will inevitably find on your bank’s window), guaranteeing deposits up to a certain amount. The bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life happened just before its creation, and so for viewers in 1946 it served as a scary reminder of how things used to be before the Democrats pushed through the New Deal.

In 1938, Fannie Mae was also created at Roosevelt’s behest in order to increase home ownership and make housing more affordable. Both of these programs were pushed through against Republican opposition, and both would have benefited the residents of Bedford Falls–those who did “most of the working and paying and living and dying” in the community, as George so passionately put it. George’s support for the poor on these issues would have recalled the Democratic rhetoric, while Potter’s heartless commentary on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poor would have echoed the anti-New Deal Republicans.

Don’t take my word for it, though: these leftist echoes scared the FBI. A 1947 FBI memo (pdf, pg. 14) indicated concern that the screenwriters were closet Communists and that the portrayal of bankers and rich people was highly suspect. Now, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wasn’t always the most level-headed of organizations, but the fact that they were concerned about the leftist tones of It’s a Wonderful Life means that some aspects of the film resonate in different ways today.

So what’s your call, Keith? Am I missing something? Or, in their deep appreciation for the film, do conservatives today ignore the historical and political context of It’s a Wonderful Life?

Keith: I am one of those conservatives who loves It’s a Wonderful Life and actually believe that the film encapsulates a lot of my small government, pro-family political philosophy. While I’m glad to have my presumptions challenged, I think that you’re wrong to say that this movie is anti-capitalist.

I will grant your presumption that we should consider the historical situation at the time of this movie’s release to help us understand how certain scenes would be understood. Like Scalia at the movies, we should consider the original public meaning, right? But we’re not merely asking a purely historical question, right? I’m not particularly interested if some FBI agents struggled to separate the idea of a bad banker from the idea that all bankers are bad. I’m similarly nonplussed by the question of whether Republican identifiers would have been torqued by watching the film in 1946.

Political coalitions have shifted quite a bit in the last two-thirds of a century. Back then, it was not unusual to be for both higher government spending and traditional family values. Indeed, as both parties were rather conservative on social issues, the economic divergences played a larger role in determining voting behavior. Today’s political fault lines obscure these differences. Now, if one is for traditional family values, that identity tends to dominate and make differences of economic regulation seem comparatively minute. All that is to say, that it could be that the folks who wrote this film were both “conservative on social issues” in some sense that we can recognize, while still advocating for leftist solutions to some of the economic issues of the day.

However, I don’t actually see how the movie supports left-leaning economic policy. The movie exults in the way the Bailey Building & Loan helps Mr. Martini escape Potter’s rental slums. You suggest that scene would be a comeuppance to those dastardly anti-New Deal Republicans who opposed the enactment of Fannie Mae. Actually, I bet those Republicans supported the end of the policy–getting folks into their own homes–and merely objected to the efficiency or constitutionality of the means. To see it your way is like maintaining that today’s GOP is against children eating lunch and that a movie showing a non-governmental actor providing lunch to hungry kids would be a real dig against conservatives.

On the contrary, when I see the Bailey Building & Loan helping folks escape the slums, I see a for-profit company improving the lives of its customers. When I see George foregoing his honeymoon and keeping the Building & Loan afloat through the bank run, I see the entrepreneurial genius benefiting everyone around him. When I see George providing private charity to Violet (or even the otherwise unemployable Uncle Billy), I see a demonstration of how a freer market with less of a public safety net would actually work.

Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you’ve got George Bailey?

But beyond these incidental plot twists, don’t you see how the actual thrust of the movie is conservative? George Bailey denies himself and his desire for freedom and travel, and ties himself again and again to the small town and community. He was derogatory of his “not much a businessman” father, but eventually became his father and, in doing so, blessed everyone in Bedford Falls. Isn’t that conservative? Continue reading

The Marriage Pledge and the Libertarian Solution to the Marriage Debate

Over at First Things the Revs. Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner have published a document called The Marriage Pledge. The gist of it can be summed up as follows:

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

You can read the whole thing and see a list of signers, which includes Peter Leithart, here. Tristyn Bloom reported on the pledge for the Daily Caller and you can read her piece on it here.

There’s a sense in which this move is understandable. CS Lewis after all had very similar thoughts 60 years ago in the post-war years in Britain when he proposed a similar solution in Mere Christianity:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that both Revs Seitz and Radner are currently living in Canada, which on matters of sex ethics has been far more hostile thus far to orthodox Christians than the United States. So this move may not simply be a form of protest against the current order, but also an attempt to put a bit of distance between the church and the public square so as to protect the church from possible legal consequences for maintaining an orthodox view on sexuality and marriage.

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The American Conservative’s Case Against the Suburbs

The American Conservative has opened up a new front in the decades-old War on Suburbia. This attack, purportedly, comes from the Right.

Reagan and Kirk (photo courtesy Annette Kirk, Russell Kirk Center)

Suburban Critics?

In the past month, the magazine has launched two broadsides on this topic. Rod Dreher composed an ode to Philip Bess’ “New Urbanism of the Soul” and Charles Marohn published “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” After reading both articles, I found my conservative soul unstirred. Ultimately, it is unclear if either Bess or Marohn are espousing “conservative” principlesat least how that term is usually defined in the American political discoursefor they oppose suburbs on hierarchical and elitist grounds. Theirs is not an American conservative case against the suburbs. If anything, it may be something of a European conservative case against the suburbs. But, ultimately even if some of their these arguments would have resonated with Prince Metternich, their purchase in the American political debate is lacking.

 

Thomistic New Urbanism

The way Dreher frames Philip Bess’s work begins to highlight this disconnect. Bess is introduced as a Catholic professor of architecture at Notre Dame from where he has focused his urban design efforts on the After Burnham project, which “imagines what Chicago—given its current architectural, social, and environmental order—might look like 100 years hence if the next century is informed by classical humanist urbanism and Catholic social teaching.” Such a grandiose project of central planning sounds exactly like the kind of thing the Habsburgian bureaucracy would undertake.

Dreher also explains that Bess is both a convert to Roman Catholicism and a convert to New Urbanism and that the two conversions are not merely coincidental. Continue reading

Reopening the Question of China and Hobby Lobby

We’ve been through this once already, but since my friend Jonathan Merritt’s latest piece dredging up the charge of hypocrisy against the Greens because they do business in China has been sent around, so I thought I’d say one or two things about it.

Before that, though, it’s worth pointing out that this has nothing to do with any of the legal arguments that Hobby Lobby has pursued the last few years.  Hypocrites still have their right to religious liberty, after all, and thank the Lord for it. Additionally, I’d note that whatever else I end up saying about this that I think there are real questions to be answered here about how we entangle ourselves in environments where injustice is being done.  It’s obvious that evangelicals need to do a lot more thinking about dirty hands, and Jamie Smith’s recent essay is a great place to start.

But can I gently suggest that Jonathan’s essay is not how such thinking should be done?  The gist of the piece is that China does lots of bad stuff, and Hobby Lobby buys and sells goods there…ergo Hobby Lobby are hypocrites for defending the integrity of their consciences against the intrusiveness of the government. If they aren’t conflicted about their complicity in China, then why do they care about their complicity in the States?

'A Hobby Lobby that looks different!' photo (c) 2014, Nicholas Eckhart - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Now, put that way, Merritt’s piece highlights why everyone should be rooting for Hobby Lobby before the Supreme Court.  If the alternative is having their consciences broken by the heels of the government, then the US environment is really no better than China.  Merritt’s critique (ironically) highlights whats at stake here:  do we want a US government that is as demanding and intrusive to individual consciences as he alleges the Chinese government is, or not?  Even if we grant his point about hypocrisy, then our appropriate response should be to exhort the Green’s to revisit their business practices in China while praying they win before the Court. Something tells me that’s not quite the conclusion Jonathan was hoping for.*

But let’s take a look at his….well, I’d call it an argument but I’m not sure it rises to that level.  It gets all of its rhetorical energy on obfuscations and generalizations, which allow for the rhetorical point to go but in the olden days would have been called sophistry.  There’s a lot of handwaving here meant to make you readers feel bad about China, and doing business with China, but not very many specifics about what Hobby Lobby actually does there.  So here are some additional questions that I would want answered before making a moral judgment about Hobby Lobby’s gross hypocrisy:

  • Does Hobby Lobby pay their workers in China the $9.77 a day that Merritt says is the average wage, or more?
  • Where are they buying their products in China, and what does kind of quality of life does what they pay their vendors earn their employees?
  • What kind of due diligence did they do on their vendors to ensure that their vendors are providing the kind of working conditions we would all want to support?
  • Is Hobby Lobby’s China branch leaning on and petitioning the Chinese government to the extent that it is able to ensure better working conditions for laborers?
  • Is the free trade that Hobby Lobby undertaken helpful, harmful, or indifferent for establishing Western leverage with the Chinese with respect to human rights?  To put the question differently, if Hobby Lobby pulled out and trade died, would conditions in China improve or not?  Is interdependence important for social improvement, even if China currently has abusive practices in places? (Thanks to Jonathan Chan for this point, and for this West Wing clip.)
  • Does Jonathan have any evidence at all that allows him to make the rhetorical leap from (a) Hobby Lobby does business in a country where child labor happens to (b) Hobby Lobby supports underage labor?  (See his question “Can you call yourself a “Christian business” when you support underage labor?”
  • Given what we know about Hobby Lobby’s conscientiousness in other facets of their business, is there any reason to think that the Green’s have not been as conscientious with the above questions, other than by prima facie assuming that “doing business” (as a vague abstraction) in China means that they are complicit in everything happening in China?

I could probably keep going, but you get my point.

Jonathan wraps things up with this fun little gotcha:

The most glaring inconsistency between Hobby Lobby’s ethical proclamations and its business decisions concerns the matter of religious liberty. The craft store chain is hailed by conservatives as standing up to Uncle Sam and fighting for religious freedom. Yet Hobby Lobby imports billions of dollars worth of bric-a-brac from a nation that denies 1.35 billion citizens freedom of worship.”

There’s lots to be said about China and its rhetorical function in American culture. (Go ahead, name me three positive things about the Chinese people or society without using the internet.) But with respect to religious liberty, Jonathan’s statement that the Chinese government are denying their citizens “freedom of worship” is a simplistic caricature of a massively complicated subject.   China as a society is more religiously open now than it has been in a long time. Among other things, the Chinese government is funding theological research in China. Even when they are tearing down churches, the situation is much more complicated than the American press generally indicates

Is China perfect on religious liberty?  Of course not.  To quote a line that we all know well, it’s complicated. But  one-sided portrayals of the sort that are popular within the US actually matter for US-Chinese relations, as they perpetuate a vague hostility toward China when we should be encouraged about the gains in religious liberty we have seen there the past thirty years while continuing to push for more.

Is there an irony there, then, for Hobby Lobby?  I don’t think so. They could very well argue that by entangling themselves in a society that is trying to navigate the delicate balance of opening themselves slowly to new ideas (China) they are trying to be instrumental in that society for the slow, messy, often painful advancement of the good and the freedom of its citizens.  Those would be, I’d note, the very same freedoms they are seeking to protect here at home, and for which they have done so at great personal cost. They are not martyrs, and their practices deserve scrutiny.  But if Merritt is going to dismiss them as hypocrites, he ought at least do them the justice of making an argument that’s more than the smoke and mirrors he has given us here.

*Jonathan tells me that I wrongfully assume that he is opposed to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case. I’ve asked for further clarification on whether this means he actually supports Hobby Lobby’s case.

Faith, Family, and the Dangers of Capitalism

Do Hobby Lobby’s day-to-day practices contravene many conservative values? That was Patrick Deneen’s thesis in “Even If Hobby Lobby Wins, We All Lose”, wherein Deneen managed to articulate a fairly important thesis (even though it was denigrated for sputtering quite meaninglessly at the physical structures that modern capitalism has wrought.) This critique shares in common many of the objections that most careful readings of Wendell Berry usually yield from skeptical readers: paleoconservatism or agrarianism dreams up fanciful monsters created by modern industrialism that can only be fought by an equally fanciful retreat to the countryside. I think that we can apply some of what we have learned from Berry, Deneen, and other wild-eyed idealists while not falling off the proverbial cart (or blowing up the proverbial tractor.)

The benefits of industrial capitalism are enormous, even if they may be frequently overstated. Much of the economic stability, improved health outcomes, and general well-being that we experience now as compared to 200 years ago can be traced to the technological developments and their widespread industrial applications that humans have been applying with ferocious aptitude to the various agricultural, medical, and economic problems that we have faced for millennia. Unsurprisingly, these applications and their developments also disrupted many of the sociological structures that had been carefully formed over the millennia as well. Whether it was moving the locus of economic production out from the home and into the factory or office, increasing the dependence of any producer of goods upon ever-distant producers, or simply scaling up the amount of ecological and personal destruction that any one action could produce, it was usually local knowledge, smaller institutions, and more marginalized groups that ceded power to centralized forces. One of the common examples repeated over the years in Christian worldview classes is that of hormonal contraception; here a technology clearly meant for a good purpose helped fuel the sexual revolution as the natural intent of procreation was artificially divorced from sexual relations. Similarly, technological applications in warfare fueled greater and greater destructive powers with consequences not only for the people who were killed or maimed directly by weapons but their offspring who drank the water poisoned by the same weapons. One could even argue that given how much power has shifted away from the God-given institutions of church and family with an incommensurate rise in the powers of state and capital, the industrial revolution has taken a far greater toll on Christendom than the sexual revolution has.

This is not to say that an idyllic era of thrift and family values preceded the industrial revolution. Children were still overworked and even enslaved prior to the existence of factories, but factories allowed children to be mistreated in greater numbers by people without relationships or structures of accountability. Farmers mistreated animals long before the age of the factory farm, but the advent of modern chemistry, machinery, and even genomics have allowed far more animals to be mistreated– and thus be consumed by people whose bodies were never prepared to eat that much meat. Technology, in flattening various natural barriers, not only allows us to live without fear of many random destructive happenstances, but also removes the natural limits to human power that kept us from doing harm to one another and to the earth for centuries. The damage that has been done to physical ecology is analogous the the damage done to our moral ecologies; just as technology allows to eat without any regard for where our food comes from or at what (often federally subsidized) cost it was extracted, so technology also gives us the power to live more autonomously in the pursuit of our stubborn sinfulness.

Many of the serious battles that fought against these newly realized powers of destruction were fought in the Progressive Era, when it was clear that industrial capitalism was allowing a few to prosper at the expense of many others. However, since the entities of oppression had already grown more powerful than any previously existing small institution had the power to reckon with, new intermediaries and social compacts formed to deal with these oppressors. Many of them, of course, appealed to the government: whether it was labor laws or temperance movements, it became clear that the most expedient and effective way to enact justice or prevent exploitation was through the law. While there were many different contributions to the rise of governmental power during this era, it is foolhardy to ignore the role that the rising power of industrialism played.

This unyielding cycle of increasing human power and further appeals to governmental authority has continued to spin out over the last several decades. Continue reading

In Defence of War: A Reflection

In Defence of War is thoroughly researched, clearly and elegantly written, and masterfully argued.  The task I have been given of responding is therefore harder than it might seem: as I find Professor Biggar’s account persuasive, perhaps because his contrarian instincts match my own, my most natural impulse is to offer my plaudits and be done.  In Defence of War is, in my opinion, a definitive account of the subject that will be read for a long time to come.  Instead, however, I take my remarks below in the opposite direction and consider whether in his defense of war Professor Biggar has been as pervasively theological in his account as he might has been otherwise.

In the introductory comments to his book, Professor Biggar lays claim to a “realist” tradition of politics that acknowledges the ‘fact of intractable human vice on the international stage.’  Some people, he contends, simply “do not want peace,” or do not want it enough, or only want it on their own terms, a view that he adopts not a priori but “on historical experience.” (10)  Yet he contends such a ‘realism’ is not Hobbesian, but Christian and Barthian. It affirms a God “who is capable of incarnation real death, and bodily resurrection” and so is “stronger on eschatological hope” than Reinhold Niebuhr’s. in defence of war biggar

Biggar sets this “realism” against the “virus of wishful thinking,” or the notion that there “always has to be an available pacific solution.” Yet such a pacifism, which Biggar contends is motivated by an “optimistic anthropology” that works “by faith in the natural goodness of human beings”, is not the only anti-violence outlook that he opposes.  There is also the theological variety, which is motivated by the example of Jesus, and so “by faith in the supernatural power of God to purge the world of the human vices that foster war.”

Framing theological pacifists this way, though, borders on reducing the argument to whichever view is more effective, which the theologically-minded pacifists are to reject. If the claim that abstaining from violence is more ‘effective’ at eliminating violence and warfare, then the question can only be determined by an empirical judgment, in which case the pacifist may simply modify Chesterton’s maxim about Christianity and say that it is not so much that pacifism has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and so left untried. Or at least untried enough in either domestic or international conflicts to form a reasonable comparison set with the just war position.

Where theological pacifism and Biggar’s own Augustinian willingness to pursue a limited retribution through warfare part ways is not on whether and who must finally purge evil from the world, but rather the obligations and possibilities Christians face in the meantime as they pursue evil’s mitigation, not its final undoing.  On Biggar’s view, an “Augustinian modesty” demands that we pursue justice, but not too much justice, lest by our perfectionism we commit additional evils. (77)  The political order war leaves behind must be one that is “at least sufficiently just and stable not to return to the old ways.” But there is no reason a pacifist, theological or otherwise, would have to be committed to pursuing or expecting anything more than that either:  the pacifist constraint that Christians stringently hold forth the possibility of a non-violent resolution by refusing to take up arms does not commit them (necessarily) to the proposition that in every case peace will prevail, or even that resolution will be found in most cases. The theological pacifist may immanentize the eschaton, so to speak, and claim that God is purging the world of the vices that foster war through their non-violence. But there is no theological reason why they must.  Biggar’s claim that theological pacifists must take their stance “because they view the unilateral renunciation of violence as optimally beneficial in the (very) long run”, in fact, puts both the just war theorist and the theological pacifists in the same boat.  As he writes, neither can “demonstrate  that their chosen response to grave injustice will be less costly and more beneficial than the alternative.” (330)

I mention this not to object to Biggar’s account, but rather to raise questions about the role history and contingency plays in determining our responsibilities theologically. Biggar’s critique of the theological pacifists decisively demonstrates (in my opinion) that the New Testament is at the very least ambiguous about the legitimate use of violence. Yet in answering why we might choose just war over pacifism, the main reason Biggar gives is that “human experience teaches that wickedness, unpunished, tends to wax.” (330)  Fair enough. But wax for how long, and with what sort of unforeseen consequences?  It is incumbent upon the Christian ethicist to determine not simply the peace we ought let go of in our pursuit of retribution, but the terrors and evils we ought patiently endure. Biggar thinks that there are some cases where war is the only option before us, and so repudiates the ‘wishful thinking’ that there ‘must be a better way.’ But what is the force of this necessity in the sphere of human action? Attempting to meet an intractable vice with the unstoppable means of a more powerful coercive violence seems more like a tragically determinist account of history and its forces than a Christian view of providence and history.

To put the point a different way:  while the cross may be construed in ways other than the unqualified obligation to nonviolence, what role does the resurrection play in a just war theory? Such a moment seems to demand a qualification to the claims of history, and potentially demands of Christians a constant and unending obligation to remain open to the possibility that the tragic circumstances we find ourselves in are a momentary illusion, and that the violence is a cheat that obscures—but cannot defeat—the possibility of renewal. Biggar relays the pacifists claim that their stance “is right regardless of its efficacy,” and bluntly retorts:  “That makes no sense,” enjoining the Christian theologian to care about “the outcome of what he says.”  Yet it is just such claims of ‘efficacy’ that the resurrection seems to problematize for Christian theologians by shifting the terms of judgment away from empirical results on to another plane.

However, Biggar’s own theological account of just war does more than simply make room for it biblically as a legitimate mode of Christian reflection, before turning toward ‘natural reasons’ for sorting out when it applies.  His defense of love in war attempts to integrate forgiveness with certain kinds of resentment and retribution to demonstrate how Christian love qualifies coercion, and how that might structure the activities of soldiers on the battlefield.  Yet the account here is limited to justice in warfare, rather than clarifying how love might structure the reasons to go to war.  In that case, Biggar allows “plausibility” to define the ethical terrain in a way that potentially overly-naturalizes and historicizes our theological judgment.  He contends his account enables “us to discern how forgiveness could find fitting political expression in circumstances where simple absolution would be breathtakingly naive and inappropriate,” such as the United States’s reaction to the attacks of September 11th.  As he puts it, “If such absolution were the sum of forgiveness, then it could have had no plausible place in America’s reaction.”  Biggar is unquestionably right:  but to construe the decision to forgive slightly differently, it is not absolution that America might have offered in refusing to take up the cause of a retribution that has been chastened by compassion, but rather a judgment deferred toward another and potentially delayed until the eschaton. The American response may have been substantively identical regardless of whether it was ordered toward peace or vindictiveness. But it is not clear why, theologically, what is ‘plausible’ ought be the criterion by which these matters are decided, especially in light of the history-disrupting, deeply implausible moment of the resurrection.  In bracketing the eschatological peace that the resurrection signifies to avoid an overly stringent perfectionism, Biggar raises a real question about what need we have for it in deliberation about war at all—other than as the sort of thing we shouldn’t aim at.

The question of how we judge history in light of the cross and resurrection may have a more general practical application as well.  In the question of the Iraq War’s legitimacy, Biggar argues that the fact “that Saddam Hussein was not actually engaged in the process of perpetrating mass atrocity removes just cause from the invasion of 2003,” as the “regime of Saddam Hussein had not changed its spots.” His argument rests on the eminently practical principle that absent a change in heart or leadership, “there would be reason” to “expect the future to run along historical lines.” (256)  Given that there were no signs of internal unrest in 2003, Biggar concludes that regime change may have been possible, but clearly was not likely at the time (298), and so the invasion was a matter of last resort in that respect.  All that is fair enough.

Yet with respect to Michael Northcott’s arguments that America was motivated by imperial ambitions in light of his case that America has had at least 35 years of imperial activity, Biggar suggests that even if Northcott is right “we should still judge each case on its own merits” and “examine the most directly relevant evidence, and give priority over what our reading of historical precedent has led us to expect.”  At the least, this principle applied to Iraq would seem to eviscerate the claim that the past activities of Saddam’s regime justified intervention simply because there had been no regime change.  Whether moral atrocities by wicked dictators have a statute of limitations I am not qualified to judge.  But there is, at least, a serious question here about whether and how we use history in moral analysis.

I would note again, however, my appreciation for the book and my widespread agreement.  I offer the above noting that my own construals are questionable, at least, and instead submit them as a foundation for a healthy and lively conversation.*

*Disclosure: Professor Biggar is currently my M.Phil. advisor.  I hope it’s clear that had no bearing on the above. 

Tolkien and Violence

There’s a further Tolkien-related question that needs to be discussed after last week’s comments by George RR Martin, concerning the role of violence in Tolkien’s legendarium. Martin asked in the interview if Aragorn hunted down and killed all the orcs after his ascent to the throne, “even the little baby orcs in their orc cradles?”

As it happens, this is a terrible way of raising an interesting point. We need to talk about violence in Tolkien if we are to talk intelligently about his politics, but talking about the orcs is the wrong way of doing that. Tolkien is fairly dodgy about the origins of the orc, but the best hints we have are that orcs were originally elves who joined with Morgoth, the original Dark Lord for whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant. Due to their allegiance to Morgoth, the orcs were, by definition, evil to their core and were incapable of redemption. So the only thing left was to fight them and attempt to eradicate them. You can find ambiguity in Tolkien’s work regarding violence, but if you go looking for it in his treatment of the orcs you’re looking in the wrong place.

Martin’s comment about “little orc babies” is especially telling as it betrays a surprising ignorance of Tolkien’s world—it’s far from clear that there ever were such things as baby orcs. Tolkien never describes how exactly an individual orc comes to be, but there’s some reason to suspect that Peter Jackson’s view that orcs were made rather than born is correct. Indeed, if one reflects on the fact of Tolkien’s Catholicism it’s not hard to imagine him thinking that orcs, by virtue of their essential selfishness and lack of even the most basic form of affection or love, would be incapable of having sex and giving birth in the same way as the free peoples of Middle Earth. The simple act of sex, as Tolkien understood it, would have been the least orc-ish thing one could possibly do. (It is perhaps unsurprising that a man who writes sex in the way that Martin does would fail to pick up on this point.) So while it may seem an obvious place to go in thinking about violence in Tolkien’s work, the orcs are not the best place to begin.

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