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Willard’s Ethics

15 May 2008

I was sitting in United Market St. this morning, and FoxNews was showing some pixelated YouTube footage of two teenage girls going mano-a-mano.  The question on the table was this:  is the State of New York justified in outlawing the publication of violent video footage on the web?  When I got over the shock of what I was seeing – was this a put-on? – I reflected on Willard and Hays and the picture they paint of Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven.”

Fascinating, isn’t it?  Somewhere, someone with more curiosity than empathy decided it would be a good idea to stand there and film the violence and then squeeze it for every drop of entertainment value by posting it to the innocent, morally neutral web.  And now the state feels as though it has to step in and create a law that will bring such behavior to heel.

Good luck with that.

When we take Willard’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount and think about it at length, we see how central the questions of anger and violence are to the ethics of Jesus.  We moderns are so jaded now that we can stand by and watch – and film! – and then post! – and then yuk it up! – as two of God’s children behave like animals.  What sort of kingdom has that kind of character?

Willard asks us to consider, soberly and with a view to the costs and rewards, what Jesus is trying to achieve in us through the cross.  The inescapable message is:  do not resist the evildoer.

It’s hard to see how that can work.  So much of our world is dominated by greedy people with seared consciences who think nothing of taking what belongs to someone else, or if they can’t, getting angry and doing something about it, usually involving violence of some sort.  And so Niebuhr, by Hays’ account anyway, tells us that Jesus’ nonviolent kingdom is a beautiful ideal that cannot possibly bring peace; it will simply bring the destruction of the innocent as the evildoers run roughshod over the rest of us.  The alternative, for Niebuhr, is realpolitik; we wish it could be as Jesus commanded us, but it can’t be, so we might as well admit it, arm ourselves, and then do the best we can to keep a lid on the violence we wreak in defense of life, liberty, and property.

The stakes could hardly be higher.

Willard and Hays don’t agree on everything.  (Hays insists that there is no way to get an “ought” from an “is;” Willard says you can’t even conceive of an “ought” without deriving it in some way from an “is.”) Philosophical quibbling (!) aside, though, they agree on this:  Jesus’ nonviolent ethic may seem impossible, but it’s certainly not disputable.  If we’re going to be serious about discipleship to Jesus, the renunciation of all violence is just part of the furniture, and we’re going to have to deal with it.

I still haven’t worked out the scale transition from the personal (Matthew 5:38ff) to the national.  If I as an individual, living in the community of faith in Christ, am required to renounce violence, how can it possibly follow that I can outsource the violent suppression of evil to the state?

Venezuela’s brilliant lunatic, Hugo Chavez – crazy, yes, but like a fox – is saying today that if Colombia goes through with plans to host a U. S. military base near the border with Venezuela, his government will consider it an act of aggression.  Of course, we apparently have good reason to believe that Chavez has been using his Orinoco gravy train to finance and foment a Marxist insurrection in Colombia, which is just about the only South American country friendly to the U. S.  If we don’t restrain evil – with violence, or the threat of violence – who will?

That, my friends, is known as cognitive dissonance.  I know I must renounce violence.  But if every righteous person renounces it, who will fight to keep the coyotes out of the henhouse?

qb

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 May 2008 11:03 pm

    Wondering in cyberspace and in Frisco: but is Chavez in our henhouse or one of our making abraod because of national vanity rather than humility? It’s one thing to defend with violence (and that a last resort) our borders and fellow citizens against violence, another to export that violence as a means of . . . well what? Coop

  2. queueball permalink*
    16 May 2008 9:41 am

    My take is that the picture is a bit more nuanced than that – there’s bound to be some virtue in supporting the Colombians’ national transformation – but I take your point. Energy independence, chimera though it be today, would permit us to be less aggressive globally in creating the “for-me-or-against-me” dualisms that animate foreign policy in the U. S.

    An aside: Reducing energy consumption is a sine qua non; simply pursuing energy efficiency will not do the trick.

    qb

  3. Ben permalink
    16 May 2008 3:59 pm

    There is a case to be made for defense of the innocent under the heading of loving one’s neighbor. If we believe it is worthwhile to impose Christian ideals on government (which is an interestingly convoluted task) then, at least, we serve our neighbor by brandishing the sword before the aggressor across the river making him think twice about his next move – in my humble opinion.

  4. Ben permalink
    16 May 2008 3:59 pm

    There is a case to be made for defense of the innocent under the heading of loving one’s neighbor. If we believe it is worthwhile to impose Christian ideals on government (which is an interestingly convoluted task) then, at least, we serve our neighbor by brandishing the sword before the aggressor across the river making him think twice about his next move – in my humble opinion.

  5. queueball permalink*
    16 May 2008 5:10 pm

    And that brings me to the next quandary, Ben. Let’s say I decide, as a matter of discipleship to Jesus, that I must adopt the pacifist stance. (That’s where Yoder ended up.) By what logic do I then elect to enjoy the fruits (i. e., by staying here in America) of political freedom paid for by the blood of soldiers whom I have now effectively refused to join? And what form does my discipleship take in reference to the military men and women who worship God with me? Hays has some interesting thoughts on these matters, but he doesn’t take me far enough down the road.

    Glad you stopped by, Ben. Golf before too terribly long, I hope. qb

  6. Andrea permalink
    7 July 2008 11:51 am

    I’m catching up on what you’ve been up to, little brother, and I couldn’t let this entry pass without commenting. For more than 20 years I have hated the word “ought” and wanted it to be outlawed. I try to not use the word at all and have become fairly decent at catching the word before it takes hold in my brain and/or leaves my mouth. I didn’t really understand why I felt that way but this entry helped me me see that I have been fighting the is/ought battle. How can there be so many “oughts” when there are so few real “is”? There should be a one to one correlation. I guess now I have to decide what is/oughts actually exist. Easy, huh.

    Have a great week.

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