The Myth of a Private Faith and Reflections on Just War Theory

ImageI can always judge when I’ve read (or am reading) an important book or article or whatever when I find myself consumed in reflecting on it well after I’ve put it down.  The vast majority of things I read just simply bleed into the next article or book or whatever with minimal personal impact.  The fact that I finished Lee Camp’s book, Who is My Enemy?, last weekend and it has haunted me throughout this week testifies to its impact on me.  This post continues to reflect upon and wrestle with some of Camp’s work.  

This morning, on my way to the office, I turned on the local Christian radio station – something I almost never do.  In the brief moment I had it on, I was informed that this particular station says the Pledge of Allegiance every morning – “so you can say the Pledge with your kids” is how the advertisement ran.  While the issue of whether or not a Christian should say the Pledge is a topic for another day, I simply use this anecdote to illustrate just how ingrained and intertwined patriotism has become with the Christian faith in the United States.  Soldiers regularly are praised for serving “God and Country,” but I wonder if we’ve come to a place where we really exist in a society that extols “Country . . . and god,”  but I don’t think I mean that in the way most people will understand.   

It is perhaps the greatest paradox of our age.  The liberal view of religion – that which states religion is a private, personal matter and should be kept out of politics – has at the same time, largely brought the United States and Western civilization to unparalleled heights of power and wealth and success while (nearly?) removing any public relevance of the Christian faith to matters of policy and politics.  Last year in our small group, we were going over some of our discussion questions (I don’t even remember the topic) when someone in our group remarked rather sharply, “I feel like this is getting a little political,” and then skipped the question and moved on.  Inherent in this episode is the belief that politics are not a matter to be discussed in church.  They are too controversial.   And so . . . we have, by and large, forfeited our right as the Kingdom of God, to have any important or relevant say in matters of politics.  Instead, we have allowed the partisan blowhards and professional politicians to determine the language we use and the manner by which our arguments are constructed.  Simply put, the arm of the state has set the rules and the church has been more than happy to play by those rules.  

Lee Camp points out this reality rather sharply in his discussion of Just War Theory (JWT).  Using a similar rationale to that of his mentor John Howard Yoder, Camp takes a theory that he himself does not espouse (for Camp, no war can ever be just – as with Yoder – see his When War is Unjust, 1984) but is nonetheless widely held, at least theologically, and takes a candid assessment of America’s involvement in war.  From the genocidal settling of the American Frontier, to the bloody intramural cultural battle of the Civil War, Camp relays gruesome stories reinforcing Sherman’s assessment that “War is hell.”  The question ringing throughout, of course, is whether or not it is a hell in which Christians are ever called to participate. 

Camp summarizes the criteria for JWT under three areas: just causes for war, just acts of war, and due process governing the war.  Falling under these three categories are the following more detailed criteria:

– War must be declared by a “legitimate authority”

– There must be a just cause

– Right intention (ie. restoring peace)

– Right motivation (ie. love for oppressed and for enemy)

– Last resort

– Enemy must always be allowed to enter negotiations to end conflict

– The war must be deemed “winnable”

– Proportionality – war cannot cause more damage than it seeks to prevent

– Respect for international treaties and laws

– Only one side can be considered to be fighting “justly”

– Immunity for innocent

– Weapons must discriminate (landmines are generally understood to be in violation here)

– “Necessary” methods

– Respect for human dignity

My intention here is not so much to engage in discussions about JWT or pacifism.  For the record, I tend to lean more towards the Camp/Yoder camp (pun intended) and struggle to reconcile violence with New Testament Christianity – but again, that is neither here nor there.  More important for the discussion here is this anecdote by Camp early in the book.  In his ten years or so teaching at Lipscomb University, he has encountered only one student who has ever heard a sermon preached or a class taught on the issue of JWT. One of my gravest concerns is that these discussions are mostly limited to academic circles. 

The importance of this may be lost on you if you fail to realize that JWT has long been the established “official” position by the church for hundreds of years!  And yet, ten years’ worth of students at a Christian University (and one that actually has a pacifist branch within its tradition) only one student has received any thoughtful reflection on that from his or her church!  The question is – where is teaching on matters of the Bible and war-making taking place? 

I assure you, from personal experience, our churches regularly graduate our students as soldiers of the State through the Armed Forces – and this reality forces us to ask the very challenging and difficult question: Have we given them any thought or training or reflection to what they are doing?  Have they prepared themselves to reconcile Christ’s teaching to love their enemy as they participate in the State’s war games preparing to kill the enemy? 

It is here where I believe the reality of a private religion is exposed as mythical and heretical.  We wince at the thought of having these discussions in our churches or Bible classes, but if they are not happening there – then where?  When?  And led by whom?  The vast majority of discussions I’ve taken part in sound more like an episode of Glenn Beck or Bill O’Rielley than they do uniquely theological or biblical.  Our church members are better informed on the Republican stance on Iran than any international Christian churches or organizations.  I’ll be particularly hard on youth ministry here.  A bird’s eye view of youth ministry sees the emphasis on sexuality, relationships, identity, and many other important factors in adolescence – vitally important for a person’s development to be sure, but also extremely limited to the impact of a “private, personal Savior.”  The hope is that they’ll be celibate until marriage, they’ll avoid pornography, they’ll have a positive body image, and self-respect.  As for their public impact, the hope is that they’ll grow into important leadership roles in society, to be sure . . . but how much attention is given to the impact of what particular roles they choose to serve in?  I recently met with a woman who turned 99 years old.  I have not met her son who lives nearby, and when I asked if he went to church anywhere, she just shook her head and said, “No . . . he went all the time until he joined the military – but that changes a person, you know?”  Well, I do . . . but I wonder how many young Christians who are sitting in a recruiters office realize that. 

Why don’t churches graduate more social workers than soldiers . . . business majors?  Now there’s a question for the next youth minister’s luncheon.   





Superman Not an American???

This little frame from the most recent Superman comic has created quite the platform for discussion.  My previous blog, God, Superman, and the Buckeyes, seems to be the perfect repository for much of recent big news (scandals at Ohio State, and now this??)  This is right in my wheel house.

A couple of years ago I published an article examining the ways in which media portrayals of heroes are little more than an extension of the state seeking to glorify national interests and solidify patriotism in children (think G I Joe, Superman, etc.)  The authors Jewett and Lawrence have done a lot of work in this regard from the perspective of American history.  It seems that this latest turn in the Superman saga sparks a potential follow-up article (which if I can find some time I’ll work on some day , but here are some initial thoughts).

There is little doubt that Superman is the archetypal American “mono-myth” (a term from Jewett and Lawrence).  After all, he has always fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”  Created by Siegel and Shuster in 1938, the comic had World War II and the Cold War to foment Superman in the American psyche as extension of all that is good in American foreign policy.  2011, however, is a much different time than the 40’s and 50’s.  The global political landscape has changed so drastically that Superman is having to reinvent himself to make sense in today’s global world.

It will be interesting to watch the conservative backlash from this event (and to see if the comic creates a new storyline where Superman’s American citizenry is once again affirmed), and it is one of those instances where we can learn alot about people from popular culture.  No doubt, the underlying impasse for many will be the presupposition that Superman’s renunciation of his American citizenship is predicated on the idea that his quest for truth and justice (and freedom?) finds him at odds with the American economic and political policies in the world.

There’s much more to come on this . . . but I wanted to throw out some initial thoughts of mine . . .