James Leroy Wilson's blog

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Jesus and Non-Aggression

I received the following via a forwarded email, and don't think it's available on line. Writing in the Dec. 18 America, Jesuit philosophy professor John Kavanaugh writes,

The history of religions is marked by war and atrocity, often committed in the name of God. True, but this may be a problem with humanity itself rather than with the religions that have been used to justify war. Let us not forget the devotion of Pol Pot and the French-educated atheists who devastated Cambodia. Or Stalin and Mao, their hands bloodied by the
slaughter of millions. And what might be said of the atheistic glories that accompanied the enthronement of Goddess Reason on Notre Dame's high altar during the Reign of Terror and its beheaded thousands? I think the alarmed and anxious atheists are onto something, even though
they have little concept or experience of what we are about. They do understand ideology, since they cling to their own. But they are innocent of any belief in a person like Jesus Christ. And this is where the atheist angst is misplaced. The threat from certain Christians is not that they are
Christian, but that they are not Christian enough. They pay lip service to the Gospels and offer everything else to American capitalist nationalism. Some Christian "believers," having a faith more notional than real, are increasingly identified with nationalism, American exceptionalism and global supremacy. This is the party of what I would call the Americanist Christian
illusion. Maybe these are the folks, at least in the United States, that the atheists are really worried about. Some of them, expecting the end-times and the Second Coming, seem to think that the United States is the chosen "terrible swift sword." But the more pragmatic of them are just apologists for America. They justify pre-emptive war, torture, the right to carry arms, the supreme right to spend one's own money, all libertarian taxation policies and capital punishment. Among Catholics you can see their trump card when any voice from Rome calls into question American exceptionalism. All of a sudden, the pope has no legitimacy in matters economic, political or military. For Christians in general, this is the same tactic employed with the hard Gospel sayings that challenge wealth, violence and worldly power: Surely Jesus can't mean that! Many of his utterances would be considered so un-American that if a preacher did no more than quote him, he would be run out of town.

It is worthwhile to criticize Christian defenders of State violence when it comes to aggressive war, torture, and the death penalty, just as it is worthwhile to criticize anyone who defends these practices (although I believe the evil of the death penalty comes from application rather than principle; lifetime support for incorrigible violent criminals is hardly a just solution for the taxpayers). But Kavanaugh also criticizes people for defending the individual from the State violence, for promoting the right to self-defense , the right to spend money as one pleases, and “libertarian taxation policies.” Even here, Kavanaugh's premise is flawed; the Christian nationalists he criticizes are hardly friends of the right to spend one's own money on, say, medical marijuana for his cancer-ridden mother. And they don't support libertarian taxation policies so much as they support Republican deficit spending. If only the Christians he criticizes were guilty of the libertarian caricature! More to the point, if Kavanaugh is suggesting that the State should deny the rights to self-defense and to spend one's own money, he is essentially saying the State should wage preemptive war on the individual.

And it's fair to say that the poor in Jesus's day were poor because of un-libertarian taxation policies of Rome and its vassals. The government soaked the middle class, which in turn exploited the poor in order to pay the taxes. And there is every indication that Jesus and his posse has plenty of money and weapons. Jesus never advocated the expansion of government power, or criticized the government for failure to expand its own power in order to “help” the poor or keep the people disarmed. It is most advisable, for the Christian witness to be credible, that Christians today emulate that example. The more that Christians applaud, endorse, or advocate State power, the less credible they are. Those Christians who support wars on guns, “vice,” and private property are just as disgraceful as Christians who support overthrowing foreign regimes for oil, or torturing brown men for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Non-aggression seems to me an ethically necessary principle from a religion that preaches “love your neighbor.” In that sense, I have no problem with, say, 6-day creationists who followed the principle, just as I have no problem with atheists who recognize non-aggression as pragmatically necessary to survival. Unfortunately so many Christians embrace the State for reasons incomprehensible to me, and so many secularists ridiculously place an unfounded and positively religious faith in “democracy.”

It seems that most people are just looking for an excuse to meddle into other people's lives. “Jesus said so” or “the will of the people” seem to suffice. Even though they're intellectually and morally indefensible.


  1. Jim, Haven't you ever read the Beatitudes?

    Blessed are the rich who oppress the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    Blessed are those who don't mourn for victims of injustice and violence, for they will be comforted.
    Blessed are the imperialists, for they shall inherit the earth.
    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for vengeance...
    Blessed are those who show no mercy...
    Blessed are those whose heart is stained with imperialist ambition...
    Blessed are the peacekeepers of the imperial system...
    Blessed are those who persecute others...

    If you only read the right translation of the Bible, you would see the truth of the Constantinian Jesus of Christendom... Actually, good article, of course, though you have to be careful to not just see Jesus through your own ideological lens - he always challenges our lenses. His primary concerns, though often allied with a libertarian view, are not identical with it. Think of Jesus' attitudes toward money. Keeping and spending one's own money were not as important to him as giving it away to others who needed it.

    BTW, I just stumbled on an old file of "A Question of Faith" articles from our North Park days, including an exchange we had about abortion. I put my foot in my mouth a lot, and you were thoughtful. Here we are debating again!

  2. The problem is, there are so many perspectives and portraits of Jesus, the Gospels, and the Bible as a whole - from different cultural perspectives, philosophies and understanding of historical context. The most intelligent and well-informed from each tradition can craft nearly irrefutable arguments that their Jesus is the correct one. Those who choose to believe in Jesus have basically two options - go along with what's one's been taught since childhood, or after however much one has studied, choose the Jesus closest to one's own feelings and intuition.

  3. To a certain extent, I agree with you. In reading any great book, or trying to understand any historical figure, there will be a multitude of interpretations. That is especially the case with a book like the Bible, which is a collection of works, of various genres, written over more than 1,000 years by dozens of authors. It is also especially true with a figure like Jesus, who lived 2,000 years ago and left behind no writings of his own. I don’t think the debate about Jesus’ character and significance will ever be finished this side of the Kingdom of God.

    But, I do not think we need to jump to an extreme relativism. There are better and worse interpretations of the Bible, and better and worse interpretations of Jesus, as witnessed to in the Newer Testament. There is nothing intrinsic to the Bible that makes it incapable of being interpreted in better or worse ways. For example, your interpretation of Jesus is more true to Scripture than an interpretation of Jesus that justifies torture, aggression, and oppression, and we could cite dozens of passages of the Gospels to make the case. Using Jesus to justify such wickedness is like using Martin Luther King, Jr. to justify racism; it just doesn’t work.