Monday, June 06, 2005

Why I am a Neocalvinist Pacifist

As a feeble neo-Calvinist pacifist, who only will blog from time to time, I am very, very grateful for this fine discussion. Thanks to all. Let's keep thinking this stuff through, with the best resources of our tradition...Thanks.

Im not sure I can easily explain my admittedly vexing view. I’ve been re-reading Richard Mouw’s wonderful recent books---on common grace, on the “filling” of the New Earth, on freshly explaining TULIP. I wish I had his penchant for expressing a solid loyalty to and being rooted in our Reformed tradition and yet to supplement it with the best insights of the broader body of Christ.

I will admit that perhaps I just ought not call myself a Calvinian pacifist, since Calvin didn’t teach pacifism, and of course, neither did Kuyper. In that precise sense, my phrase isn’t proper. So admittedly, I’m trying to squeeze a new configuration here.

The point of my little post was, remember, to celebrate the discussion of these things, to affirm those who are working hard to continue this good discourse—Gideon explaining his change of mind away from nonviolence during his years in South Africa, the reflections about Lincoln, Jamie Smith’s comments. Good stuff!


To your question: most simply, I would say that unlike most Anabaptists who have a low view of the task of the State, (related, it seems, to their lack of adequate appreciation for the notion of creational ordinances) I want to generally affirm the high regard for statecraft and the authority of the state that characterizes the Calvinist tradition, and esp the work of Kuyper and his spiritual offspring. Further, that creational ordinances, illumined by the pertinent Biblical texts, understood in the unfolding covenanted framework of the history of redemption, point us towards glimmers of certain things the state should and shouldn’t do. I think from what little I’ve picked up about the broadly conceived notion of sphere sovereignty, that I affirm the neo-Calvinist view of the limits of the state. And I want to explore these duties and limits without a dualistic two-Kingdom view (Lutheran or Anabaptist) or, worse, demonizing the state a la Ellul, old Sojourners or Berrigan. With the Kuyperians I want to affirm the calling of the state in a world being recreated by Christ’s Rule and recall the specialization and limits of this calling. (It has, I think Dooyeweerd wrote, a mediating role, helping the various spheres unfold justly.)

So the question then becomes, if the task of the state is to do justice in this role, how best may it, as harbinger of the eschatological new creation, do its task in God-honoring and Christ-like ways. I affirm in principle the goodness of authority (authority structures/institutions are structured into the created order and further disclosed as part of God’s plan for His world) but do not think that that necessarily implies that the power that this authority wields (what good is authority without power?) may be lethal. The “sword” of Romans 13 (“ a little dagger”, it may be best exegeted, I’m told) denotes institutional authority and legal power, but it does not follow that it means literal, lethal violence on a grand scale, as in the waging of warfare. God-given institutions—like the state—which are given for our good are to be construed in light of what we know of the mercy of God’s grace. The reigning, Sovereign One, Christ Himself, has not authorized, in my view, magistrates to kill or to authorize others to kill. He himself will return with refiner’s fire, but until that Day of cosmic healing, we promote a historically relevant reformation of the assumptions of the nature of each social institution. “Taking every theory captive” we re-think, in Biblically driven ways, the norms for each sphere. The sphere of the civil order is mediated by the good institution we call the state; the norm /principles that guide the work of that institution is the doing of justice, which must be executed in a manner which is in keeping with the very notion of restorative justice; that it, it may not do violence, even as it is authorized to exercise (redeemed expressions of) real power.

(An admittedly weak analogy: some say “troth” is the norm for marriage—trust, loyalty, and such. The development of trusting relationships in a family ought not be developed in a manner that is inherently disloyal or untrustworthy. Yes, I suppose some parent could think they are teaching trust by tempting to throw their child off the balcony; yes, I suppose a husband could think he is helping his wife learn to trust him by intentionally lingering around unmarried woman. But the methods of troth-building ought not erode the very trust they are trying to develop. Similarly, the outworkings of the State—which I understand, I would like to think, in ways generally in keeping with Dutch neo-Calvinism—ought not to be done in a manner that is self-contradictory to it’s own unique calling. To be plain, the ends do not justify the means; methods must be congruent with goals, the justice doing of the state ought not erode the grace-filled restoration that God intends for his planet. And the Scriptures are clear: Christ comes to heal, not to destroy.)

Another brief note. Agreeing with a neo-Cal doesn’t make me one, I suppose, but I have greatly appreciated (if perhaps not fully understood, some might say) Al Wolter’s keen observation of the distinction between structure and direction. I have pondered how non-pacifist reformational folks may have misunderstood this when it comes to the state. The structure, of course, is the creational legitimacy and authority of the state; the directional matter wonders if the state’s unfolding is increasingly towards a restoring justice, to be executed nonviolently. To identify the essence of the state with its alleged necessity to execute lethal violence seems, to me, to confuse s & d; that is, for a God-given institution to commit acts of lethal violence is for it to be opened up in a disobedient direction, a direction which only causes further embeddedness in the ways of the world. Interestingly, both the anti-State Berrigans and the just war Calvinists seem to agree: the state, to be the state, has to be violent.

I know this is feebly said; I concede to using reformational phrases to try to convince you that I’ve got some connection to the tradition. And I am aware that the Reformed tradition has affirmed the legitimacy of limited lethal violence. I think the “always reforming” stuff might apply here: we’ve got it mostly right, but need to tweak our understandings of the way nonviolent power can express the God-ordained structure of the state’s authority.

I am grateful that my life has been blessed by the insights and witness of those attempting to work out in fear and trembling the implications of the Lordship of Christ over the whole of life; I am further encouraged and challenged by those, like yourself, you insist on doing this by thinking critically about the very notions that color and influence our assumptions about the nature of social institutions, their shape and their role, their structure and their methods of executing their tasks. I just think that neo-Calvinists who affirm this stuff ought to continue to ask (or revisit) the question, from time to time, if authorized violence and organized killing can faithfully prefigure the coming fullness of the reign of Christ, or build institutions that are able to endure in ways that are helpful, healing and powerful in doing what God calls them to do, in ways consistent with God’s revelation in Christ.

On a more personal note, I hope you don’t take my remarks as a mean or underhanded attack on your own sense of calling to serve in the military. That you are risking your life in a war zone---something I obviously think you ought not to be doing---may make my remarks seem excessively unrealistic. You are living out the trajectory and implications of your writings and research and I commend you for that. I consider you a friend for whom I pray from time to time, and worry about occasionally, knowing you are in harms way. I truly wish you well, and hope we can chat face to face again sometime.

by: Byron Borger (URL) on 2005-05-26 23:53:23
Originally Posted by Gideon Strauss on his site from his comment section.