Last week I was working through the several ideas of pacifism and its counterparts of "Just War" theory (sic, there are no "just wars," just "just causes") and "Measured Responses" (meet all oppression with appropriate delegation and determination before launching reciprocating policies that become locked into place without budge or move). Those ideas may be found in the post, Pacifism's Ideals Against "Just War" and "Measured Response."
Today, Roger Olson presents a post of expediency which I think is basically a re-hash of my earlier post from a week ago. It is built upon common sense and a sensible response to evil and cruelty through judicious remediation, open and honest communication, and a willingness to investigate all truths (or untruths), before forming a solidifying opinion. In a sense, an equitable court of public opinion is presented over an inequitable one filled with mistaken impressions, wrongful lies and slander, biased or prejudicial stereotypes, inaccurate media reports, and/or public fears and political pandering to those fears. Hence, no public policy should be formed without first during the hard work of validating both the wrongs committed, and the ethical dilemmas they may further present, if any further action is undertaken.
One further note is Olson's reluctant use of measured force while retaining his idea of being a Christian "pacifist" along the lines of Jesus' commands. Even so, I applaud his version of this idea of pacifism, though another definition of it would see all abandon to any force used to the protection of life, liberty, and freedom. As such, I would much more align with Olson's brand of pacifism in defense of the weak and innocent than I would by not doing anything at all. I suppose this would be more in line with the idea of "American Justice" as we see it exploited by Hollywood. (And no, I don't equate "American Justice" with the judicious response to biblical rightness... rather, I use it as a cultural pejorative, if I understand and am using the term correctly).
However, there is a far greater sin than the one of reacting to evil, and that is the one of taking no action at all. It is the sin of cowardice in the face of evil. Or the sin of no response by allowing evil to harm another. Or the sin of pride in dying for one's belief's when they affect another's will to live. Each is a study of reflection and human socio-psychology. In Bonhoeffer's case, look at how many German citizens willing allowed evil its corruption without preventing its rise by turning a blind eye to the concentration camps, or the evils suffered by their Jewish (and minority) neighbors. It takes far greater courage to break from public perception and will than it is to go against the crowd by acting singularly, bravely, and without help, towards the humanitarian debt of necessary prevention and cessation.
Lastly, how many times to we read of each reaction in the Old and New Testaments. One for ethical rightness (OT), and the other for judicious judgment (NT). It's an ancient problem and not one to go away anytime soon. Whether at home, in our communities, nationally, or globally. It started with the weak-minded parenting of Adam and Eve in provoking jealousy and animosity and doesn't end when reading of Paul's missionary church's arguing between themselves. However, it behooves us all to use common sense, a biblical sense, coupled with self-examination, humility, grace, and forgiveness. Hard choices to be sure. But then again, living this life in a Jesus-centered fashion is hard in itself. May God give us wisdom.
November 6, 2013
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Right, Wrong, and Necessary
November 5, 2013
It seems that many people think that in every situation of moral decision making there are two options and two only: right and wrong. By “right” I mean what one ought to do in order to be obedient to the highest moral law (whatever that may be). By “wrong” I mean what one ought not to do because it violates the highest moral law. Right and wrong. Black and white. And the only problem of ethics is figuring out what is “the right thing to do.”
Before I continue, let me say that I do not claim any originality for what I am about to say. But, then, I don’t think there is originality in philosophy, theology or ethics. Everything has been said somewhere by someone; originality is only in how it’s said (including by whom, in what manner, when, where, and to what audience).
I believe that in some moral decision-situations there’s a [viable] third option besides “right” and “wrong”— [the option of the] “necessary.”
“Wait!,” I can hear someone saying. “If it’s necessary, it’s right.” That’s exactly my point—to say no. The moral category “necessary” participates in right and wrong but is not wholly either one.
I speak as a Christian from a Christian (not necessarily “the Christian”) point of view in ethics. Jesus, his character, way of life, and teachings form the highest moral law I know. Jesus said “Resist not evil” or “Resist not the evil doer” (Matthew 5:39). Therefore, it is always right to practice non-resistance toward evil. Precisely what non-resistance includes is another subject. We may not know exactly what all one can do while not resisting evil, but we know what ones we can’t do while obeying Jesus’s command—use deadly force.
So, I [count myself as] a pacifist somewhere along the sliding scale of pacifism. And yet many, probably most, pacifists would not count me among them.
When faced with a decision whether to use deadly force or not, I believe that, in this broken world, inhabited by monsters who rape, murder, torture and enslave children, one ought sometimes to use deadly force. But one ought not call it “right.”
Is it, then, “wrong?” Yes, according to the highest known moral law—Jesus’ teaching. On the other hand, it’s not simply wrong. Nor is it simply not right.
Someone is now asking “Isn’t this what Kierkegaard called the “teleological suspension of the ethical?” Perhaps. But what I am arguing is that it’s not a “suspension of the ethical” if we recognize “necessary” as an ethical choice alongside “right” but not identical with it.
In my taxonomy, then, “necessary” would include those moral decisions and actions which, in a given situation of tremendous evil, one must make and do even though they violate the highest known moral law. Thus, “necessary” participates in both “right” and “wrong” but is not simply one or the other.
What’s the practical implication of this distinction? There are, of course, many. But one is that when a person does what is right they can celebrate, give God all the glory, and receive congratulations (not credit) for it. God is the source of all good, so the person who does what is truly right ought always to give God all the glory.
But ought a person who has used deadly force, even if it was necessary, celebrate, give God the glory, receive congratulations? Given Jesus’ clear command, the answer must be no.
But ought a person who has used deadly force always be criticized or condemned for it? Given clear necessity, that would seem particularly problematic.
What, then, is the right response to necessary deadly force? Sorrow, regret, even repentance--trusting in God's merciful understanding of our human condition.
In the current issue of the journal Religion in the News (15:1 [Fall, 2013]), published by The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, editor Mark Silk refers to Basil the Great, “the fourth century Church Father who presided over a diocese in Asia Minor.” According to Silk, Basil (one of the three Cappadocian Fathers) “recognized that taking up arms might be necessary even as it remained morally problematic.” (p. 1) Silk reports Basil as saying that killing committed in the course of war should not always be classified as murders, but that persons who kill in war should be refused communion for three years “on the ground that their hands are not clean.” (p. 25)
The point here is not to agree with Basil’s recommendation; it is only to point out that the view I am expressing here seems to have been one held by at least some ancient Christian leaders. While Basil did not use the word “necessary” (so far as I can tell), his treatment of the issue seems to include the idea of an action that is neither right nor wrong but necessary.
In my opinion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to kill Hitler (as reported by Eberhard Bethge in his biography of the German theologian) was, even to his own mind, neither “right” nor “wrong” but only “necessary.” And I agree that it was at least necessary to attempt it. This is, to my way of thinking, anyway, the solution to Bonhoeffer’s expressed pacifism combined with his knowing participation in a plot to assassinate the German dictator. (I choose to believe Bethge on that score, as I have already stated here earlier.) He did not shed his pacifism; he sacrificed it on the altar of necessity in this one case.
So what is the proper response to someone who has done what was necessary even though it was neither right nor wrong? Immediate forgiveness but not congratulations. They might be congratulated for their courage, but not for the actual act of use deadly force.
Now, obviously, a question immediately arises: How to know when a decision and the action based on it is necessary? I do not believe there is any litmus test for it. Casuistry* will not work here, so there’s no point in going down that road. We cannot say definitely when a morally wrong decision and action is necessary and therefore justified (although still not “right”). We live in a tragic world and our human condition is mired in tragedy—until the Kingdom of God comes. Moral, ethical decision making and acting necessarily includes some risk. Casuistry cannot remove all risks, ambiguity or uncertainty, hard as it might try.
I suspect the only way to go about filling in the category “necessary” is to look at case studies. I mentioned Bonhoeffer above. Another one, at least in story form (I don’t know the historical facts but the story is supposedly based on reality), is that of Christian Sam Childers as portrayed in the movie “Machine Gun Preacher” by Gerard Butler. Given a specific set of circumstances, he found he had no choice but to use deadly force to protect innocent children from a band of guerilla fighters who were slaughtering whole villages and enslaving children.
When I examine Bonhoeffer’s decision and the action of Childers’ [portrayal in the movie], I find myself agreeing with what they decided, and the actions they took, but unable to call them “right.” I call them “necessary” and hope I would have the courage to make and take them as they did and trust God for forgiveness.
/ˈkæʒuəstri/ Show Spelled [kazh-oo-uh-stree] noun, plural cas·u·ist·ries.
1. specious, deceptive, or oversubtle reasoning, especially in questions of morality; fallacious or dishonest application of general principles; sophistry.
2. the application of general ethical principles to particular cases of conscience or conduct.