Ears of Stone

I'm currently reading To Dwell in Peace, the autobiography of Daniel Berrigan.

If you don't know the Berrigan brothers, some background.

Daniel and Phillip Berrigan are brothers (Daniel is still living but Phillip is deceased) who were both Catholic priests. As brothers and priests they were both leaders in the Civil Rights movement and in the peace protests against the Vietnam War. Most of their notoriety comes from their participation with/as the Catonsville Nine. The Catonsville Nine was one of the more publicized anti-war protests--because two priests were involved--against the war in Vietnam. On May 17, 1968 the Nine entered the building of the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, removed the A-1 draft files, took them outside and set them on fire with homemade napalm.

The Berrigan brothers were subsequently arrested, convicted, and spent a couple of years in jail. (Incidentally, Daniel Berrigan was captured by the FBI at William Stringfellow's house.)

One of the controversies about the Catonsville Nine was their destruction of government property. Berrigans' defense: "Some property has no right to exist."

In reading To Dwell in Peace I was struck by the following passage where Berrigan describes how audiences reacted to the reasons he gave for participating in the Catonsville Nine action. Specifically, he discusses how when he tried to explain his actions on biblical grounds--as his obedience to the Sermon on the Mount--Christian audiences grew resistant. Which is--how shall we say?--somewhat curious. Given our conversation last week about just war and the bible this passage caught my attention:

Shortly, standing before audiences, I discovered something unexpected. The closer explanation drew upon biblical instruction and source, the less palatable it became...It was though in so speaking, one was by no means building bridges of understanding. One was putting up a wall, stone by stone, and mortising it tight.

It was quite acceptable to talk "politics." There was at least a nascent sense that the war was intolerable, granted the American system and its "normal" workings. One gained this small leverage. But the fact that the war might be inconsistent with the words and example of Christ, that killing others was repugnant to the letter and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount--this was too much: it turned living ears to stone.
This quote got me to thinking about our discussions last week about just war and the Sermon on the Mount. Many readers were very eager to note just how straightforward the case was for just war, almost a no-brainer.

Which makes me wonder about Berrigan's quote. Why is it so easy to use the bible to justify war and so hard to see Jesus's prohibitions in the Sermon on the Mount? Why the asymmetry?

To be clear, I understand how Christians can make a just war argument. And some of those arguments are cogent and persuasive. But here's my problem. Every Christian should be vehemently anti-war. And that's clearly not the case.

Understand what I'm not saying. I'm not suggesting that Christians should be strict pacifists. What I am suggesting is that Christians should be vociferously anti-war and regularly protesting war. That seems to be what the faith demands and expects of us. We should see just war proponents protesting war right along with and just as loudly as the pacifists. But by and large, Christians aren't widely known as having, as their default stance, an anti-war position. Most Christians, I'd expect, have never even contemplated protesting a war. It's just not our gig, not a part of our spiritual formation. Being anti-war isn't a part of our spiritual DNA. And that's just really, really, weird.

Again, the issue here isn't just war versus pacifism. It's about how an anti-war sentiment doesn't characterize the people who claim they follow Jesus of Nazareth.

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52 thoughts on “Ears of Stone”

  1. I am reminded here of the advice given, I think by Augustine, that Christians should never celebrate victory in war, even if it is considered "just", as the very need to go to war was an indictment of human sin. Pity that was not applied when Bin Laden and Gaddafi were killed.

  2. At least in conservative circles, there is also a strain that says pray for and support the government which has been put in place by God. Strangely, for many this rule went out the window when Obama became president.

  3. The Constantinian argument is that the church has been co-opted by the government. And that's certainly true, but I think the sharper way of framing that today is that the church has been co-opted by politics, with the Christian Right and Left as puppets of the two political parties.

  4. Having grown up in Catonsville (although I was too young to remember this incident at the time) and currently residing a few miles away, I couldn't resist commenting...

    I grew up in a church that promoted conscientious objection to military service, but which also eschewed participation in politics  (running for office, voting, protesting, etc.).  I don't necessarily agree with their separation from politics, but I think it bears noting that the Sermon on the Mount seems to be more about personal responsibility.  I would not stand in the way of those who choose to protest (and might even do so myself if I had the opportunity and wasn't so lazy), but I'm not sure it is required by the Sermon on the Mount.

    Moreover, the idea of destroying property as protest gives me a little heartburn.  I can see the logic: destruction of property to save lives destroyed by war.  However, if I grant that logic, I would have to grant the logic of bombing abortion clinics (assuming no one was inside), and I'm not ready to do that.  Perhaps you or someone else here can help with a Scriptural (or otherwise) justification for taking the law into our own hands in this way.

  5. I'm ever skeptical of anyone who claims to hate bullies yet concurrently eschews effective solutions at ending their terror -- in the process protecting the victims and preventing news ones from being created. 

  6. the point I would make is that whilst some Christians would indeed see it as necessary to resort to violence to remove bullies and evil powers, this use should not be celebrated, rather it should be lamented as a consequence of human sin. 

  7. But shouldn't followers of Jesus begin by working 24/7 to defuse the circumstances that lead to war in addition to opposing war when it breaks out? We're not especially good at reconciliation, better at dividing humanity into "them" and "us," even celebrating the division  (my way saves me and yours doesn't), which becomes a factor leading to war.

  8. "But by and large, Christians aren't widely known as having, as their default stance, an anti-war position."

    I think this is because so much of Christianity is steeped in the notion of divine retribution. It's a symptom of our fixation on The Last Days.

  9. The earliest Christians were anti war but they were pacifists, not non violent activists. The only time Jesus was an activist was when he overturned the money changers tables in the temple. So if he were around today he would be grabbing the microphone from television preachers who ask for money.

  10. Your words (and Richard's) would ring less hollow if you or he personally lost a loved one on 9/11 or at Lockerbie, Scotland and then wished to speak only of forgiveness.  We are free to lament, but I see nothing wrong with celebrating an act of justice, rare as they are.

  11. There's a Christian Left?  Where?  I must be going to the wrong churches, because I just keep finding the Christian Right.

  12. With no insult intended if you didn't mean for this to be funny, but I found it very much so....

    ... as in "I just keep finding Christians who think they're RIGHT (and that everyone else is wrong)."

    Please forgive my intrusion, and thanks for the snickers.

  13. I protest war and injustice all the time; thankfully so do my elected officials. Whether I vote for them or not, they are all always consistently anti-war and anti-injustice.

    Because of this, oftentimes, the Marines get sent in to stop the war and injustice.

    Have you ever though of viewing war as a Universalist sees hell? As the noted philosopher once said:

    "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell." ~ William Tecumseh Sherman

    You can trust this guy.

    "I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected." ~ William Tecumseh Sherman

  14. I'd like to add a clarification, though I'm not sure you need this, but other readers might misunderstand.

    The first part of the post is just trying to give some background about the Berrigan brothers, their most publicized action and the controversy surrounding it. As you note, those adhering to strict Gandhian principles wouldn't engage in the destruction of property, and the Berrigan's were criticized on that account, even by activists who were broadly sympathetic to their views.

    So, to be clear, I don't want to be read as suggesting that Christian anti-war sentiment should be expressed as the Berrigan's expressed it. I'm just using their story to bring up a topic of conversation.

  15. "Again, the issue here isn't just war versus pacifism. It's about how an
    anti-war sentiment doesn't characterize the people who claim they follow
    Jesus of Nazareth."

    As a Christian I protested the Viet Nam War with some of the same people who are now Occupying Wall Street.  Until I saw through the hypocrisy.  Killing people in SE Asia was bad -- getting drunk on Saturday night and killing some innocent someone on I-95 or the Long Island Expressway was just "a mistake in judgment" (it happened not once, not twice, but six times during my four years in college).  Even if "someone's" parents didn't happen to agree. No justice there, and certainly no peace.

    Perhaps the problem here is one of Agency.  "Vengeance is Mine", etc.  If God can use humans as agents of his Love and Peace, why then cannot he use those same folks as agents of his Justice?  I am NOT suggesting Holy Wars.  I am referring back to your example of the personal use of a baseball bat on a man raping a child.  It looks to me as if you want to pick and choose those characteristics of God and humanity which suit your own definition of "peace".

  16. I've not lost anyone to war. Just disease, age and auto accidents.

    God avenges all those things. We can be glad about that I think.

    That He's chosen government to be an avenger instead of having individuals avenging blood for families. I think we can be happy about that too.

    Why we get satisfaction from what happens during the avenging process; I think, maybe, that's the point most are trying to understand and correct.

    When little boys A gets all smirkey about little boy B having to go to time out for assaulting little boy A, that is a correctable offense at my house.

    Why? (No answer. I'm still looking. That's why I put up with the misdirected blather of peaceniks. Who knows, they might not be as misdirected in their blather as my emotions tell me. They might stumble into the answer I haven't yet.)

  17. I didn't offer a definition of peace in the post. Nor did I offer an opinion about the just use of violence. The post isn't about any of those things.

  18. Thanks for the clarification, that helps.  I noticed that you didn't pursue that aspect of protest in the remainder of the post, but I wasn't sure what to make of the silence, so I thought it might be useful to push back on that a bit.

  19. Well, praying for your enemies is well-known major theme of the church, even by those outside the church.

    People on the right might be worried about how it would look...


  20. Hating war is the natural condition of the right-living Christian. The words of the Master cannot be twisted to support war. But too many Christians in America want to believe our country never goes to war unjustly. That is hypocritical and naive.

  21. We've been too close to the state for too long, and the idea of resistance to it seems alien to most Christians. Unfortunately.

  22. It seems intuitive that there is such a thing as "just war". I understand that. What I find interesting is that after thousands of years of "good guys" beating back the "bad guys" in innumerable wars and conflicts (just and otherwise) we are no better off than we ever were. Thugs, evil dictators, brutal theocracies and "colonial wasters of life and limb" just pop back up for more like some never ending game of whack-a-mole.

    Wouldn't it be interesting if Christians everywhere actually emulated their master? Sure, it might get us all killed. Heck, God's own refusal to intervene violently in world history has gotten a whole lot of innocent people tortured, brutalized, enslaved and killed. I'm sure hoping there's a good reason for that. I'm pretty sure there is a good reason although sometimes I get really hacked off about it. And I'm also pretty sure that the work of Christ in absorbing evil and not reflecting it or letting it flow back out might give us some food for thought.

  23. Just to play devil's advocate, I note that John the Baptist exhorted the soldiers to be content with their pay rather than quit their occupations, and Robert Falconer (eponymous protagonist of a George MacDonald novel) helps secure a position in the army for his best friend.  Personally, I really struggle to come up with a definitive position on pacifism.  Maybe we're asking the wrong question again...?

    As a divergent (random?) thinker, this post has reminded me of the tent protest currently underway at St. Pauls' cathedral in London (that's London, England for y'all over the pond).  Has this made the American press?  A group of people are camping out to protest against capitalism and until recently, the cathedral authorities were threatening legal action to evict them and refusing to rule out violent eviction.  The archbishop of Canterbury has now weighed in with support for the protesters. 


     This would seem to be another 'obviously Christian' cause which has been met with fear by the Church of England because it took place on their land.

  24. "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the
    Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways
    and live?"  - Exekiel 18:23

  25. partially related to this post, but more related to your blog overall re: the intersection of psychology and ethics/theology, which i think you will find of interest:

    TEDxAtlanta - Dr. Charles Raison - We're Fighting The Wrong Enemy (~20 minutes long)
    (shows some interesting results from compassion mediation)

  26. Hi Dr. Beck, I stumbled onto your blog via your George MacDonald "justice" post, and now I think I'll be spending a lot of time here in the next few weeks. As you discuss above, since reading some of John Howard Yoder's work, I've also wondered why anti-violence isn't one of the central strands of the Christian belief system, or at least Christians I know. It just seems so blatantly obvious in Christ's teaching. And while there are significant objections to pacifism on the basis of its effectiveness in countering evil, I'm often reminded of Yoder's discussion in Christian Attitudes to War Peace and Revolution of the Christian's responsibility to obey Christ simply because it's right. This prevents us from getting caught up in if/then/but arguments surrounding morality. 

  27. Yeah, I thought the question might be naive. "Protest war"--why not protest disease while you're at it? Protesters are not protesting the existence of war. They are protesting the involvement of a single nation (usually America), and in order for Christians to accept that protest, they would have to accept that the war would be less murderous/ destructive/ unjust if America didn't get involved in it. What about following Jesus should make us believe this hypothesis, which I find rather dubious (even if it were true, how would I know?).

    Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe war protesters are really protesting the military actions of Hussein and North Vietnam and the USSR as much as the military actions of Washington. But I'd like to see some evidence.

  28. Hmm. "We are no better than we ever were." Try selling that to synagogues in Germany, Gypsies in Poland, African Americans in the South, etc.  If there is such a thing as "just war," it exists not to solve all problems for all time, but to protect large swathes of the world from gross injustice/ violence/ genocide. Are you really meaning to say that you can't think of any historical examples of this working?

  29. The things that alway gets me about JWT, is that in the entire history of its use, no nation has ever run through the four tests and concluded that its enemy's war  (or defence) against it, is a "Just War". It always seems to be the aggressors justifying the war they were going to fight anyway. For me JWT is just so much spin, and it discredits followers of the Prince of Peace when they trot it out. This is not to say that I cannot conceive of a liberation struggle being a valid option for a people under oppression - but lets not dress up imperial domination with the garb of "justice".  

  30. Right. The formalized JWT doesn't seem to work. And yet Christian after Christian--including some pretty thoughtful people like Bonhoeffer--decidse that, despite this, the best way to follow the Prince of Peace is neither to "approve" war, nor to "protest" war, but to do something (often something violent) to minimize the devastating violence of war by fighting some of the worst agggressors.

  31. I am in the midst of researching an anti-war point of view for a debate and paper in my Ethics class. There are several of us on a team together. We divided up the stances we would each research and my stance, Life is Sacred, can lean into the theology of Jesus a bit, but someone else has that area of focus. It has been interesting trying to find sources that are secular that have an anti-war stance. They are out there, but so much of the anti-war material is written with the message of Christ as a part if not the whole. A couple of quotes that I found interesting:

    have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their
    problems. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our
    own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems. Their
    questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the
    violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to
    the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.

    Martin Luther King Jr., in “ A Time to Break the Silence,” delivered April 4,
    1967 at Riverside Church, New York City.

    Mother Teresa refused to ever attend an “anti-war rally;”
    until you learn that she would always lend her support to a “peace rally.” She
    realized the very critical distinction: it is far better to be “for” something
    than to be “against” it.

    But there
    is a common thread in many of the most horrific perpetrators of violence that
    begs our attention – they kill themselves. Violence kills the image of God in
    us. It is a cry of desperation, a weak and cowardly cry of a person suffocated
    of hope. Violence goes against everything that we are created for – to love and
    to be loved – so it inevitably ends in misery and suicide. When people succumb
    to violence it ultimately infects them like a disease or a poison that leads to
    their own death. Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a violent kiss,
    ends his life by hanging himself with a noose. After his notorious
    persecutions, the Emperor Nero’s story ends as he stabs himself. Hitler passed
    out suicide pills to all his heads of staff, and ended his life as one of the
    most pitifully lonely people to walk the earth. We see the same in the case of
    Columbine, the 2007 Amish school shootings, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and
    this recent Virginia Tech massacre – each ends in suicide.


    Violence is
    suicidal. Suicide rates of folks in the military and working the chambers of
    death row execution are astronomical; they kill themselves as they feel the
    image of God dying in them.
    It is in moments like these violent times that grace looks so magnificent. It
    is in the shadow of such violence, as was the case after the Amish school
    shooting, that the victims’ grace to the murderer’s family shines so brightly.
    Sometimes all the peacemakers need to do is practice revolutionary patience,
    and steadfast hope – for the universe bends toward justice, and the entire
    Christian story demonstrates the triumph of love. And it makes it even more
    scandalous to think of killing someone who kills – for they, more than anyone
    in the world, need to hear that they are created for something better than
    that.    Shane Claiborne
    And then I loved this story of Shane Claiborne walking with a young man and they were attacked by a group of young men, what does a pacifist do when attacked?...The article is called Mad Jesus Skilz....http://blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/2007/01/shane-claiborne-mad-jesus-skil.html#ixzz1cf5wfsEr

  32. No, I'm not meaning to say that at all. I can think of many examples of this working and I can think of many examples of times I find myself wishing it had been attempted when it wasn't. Such as to stop the genocides in Africa. It irritates me to no end that the US or the UN or someone, anyone, didn't go in there and put a violent and bloody stop to those genocides. It irritates me to no end that God, who presumably has the power to do so, chooses not to put a violent and bloody stop to such things. I day-dream about big, muscle-bound Angels with swords of fire showing up and protecting Rachel Scott and the other innocent kids from those creeps at Columbine.

    All I'm meaning to say is that for every Hitler we defeat, for every Bin-Laden we kill, for every evil regime we take down, another just pops up somewhere else. If evil could be ultimately defeated by violence, even just and warranted violence, don't you think it would be defeated by now? We've been living and dying by the sword since the dawn of history. "Nature is [still] red in tooth and claw". Violence apparently cannot be defeated by violence. Violence, even just and warranted violence, just seems to feed the beast and makes it stronger.

  33. >Why the asymmetry?

    Because of the asymmetry in the Bible. Until most Christians have a hermeneutic that allows them to say, "a bunch of that stuff in the Old Testament is immoral and wrong", they're basically stuck with a God who endorses, not merely "just war", but "just genocide".

  34. As annoying as "you all have to read" comments are; You all have to read Tolstoys "Law of love and law of violence"
    It's freely downloadable, only 100 pages and a pretty pleasant read. The man can write.
    He makes a compelling case for both a rejection of violence and a rejection of the sort of pragmatic consequentialism that justifies violence. And he bases it all on Christian grounds. I highlight some of his points on my blog but I really recommend reading the original.
    I think his point against pragmatism is strongest. The classic "love your enemies" bible quote is always defeated by asking " but what will happen when/if..." The same question defeats "excessive" charity.
    Whether or not this kind of "looking at the big picture" to rationalise self-interest (a bit of hoarding, a little violence) is sensible it is alien to the gospels which have a much more "flaky" trust in God to preserve us and an other wordly attitude to personal safety.

    What I really find interesting is that this hugely important question - "is non-violence essential to being a Christian"- however it doesn't seem to generate the heat of so many peripheral issues like sexuality. It's as if the heart of Christian interaction is a twee unsophisticated question (Charles Dickens and Frank Capra address it) while the forms (marriage debates, church structure) are serious topics.

    I think that's a consequence of political /strategic thinking. Anything too big for a policy or law is childish. Just a hypothesis.

  35. The breaking and entering and destruction of the selective service documents still rubs me the wrong way even though I have a lot of sympathy for the cause. This is an amazing video. Personally, I think they crossed the line.

  36. Before I say anything else I need to stress my position.  I am a liberal christian with a solid background in hard science and  psychology but only a serious beginner as regards theology and textual criticism.  Also, I am broadly opposed to political violence considering most wars, riots, the violent break-up of demonstrations and terrorism to be essentially the same thing.  So I am NOT defending the unambiguous old testament commands to commit genocide.

    Despite this, I do know that you have to read things written 3000 years ago in context.  Context changes everything.  Much of even the old testament was radically liberal and modern when compared to the standard practices of the time.  For example the "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," (Exodus 21:23-25)ruling is seen as barbaric by most Europeans.  However, this law is an example of a LIMITATION on violence not an excuse for it.  It was saying,"If someone puts your eye you are allowed to do the same to them" but it was also saying, "You are NOT allowed to kill their children & burn their house down"!

    According to "How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then & Now" by James Kugel, there is slightly more to the genocide ruling than there first appears.  Kugel argues that this instruction was intended to, bizarrely, LIMIT warfare.  This is pretty counter-intuitive but the thesis is that ancient warfare was mostly about slaves and looting; essentially war as a commercial activity, (cynics feel free to add your own thoughts about modern warfare!)  The genocidal, scorched earth policy advocated in the old testament was therefore a massive reason to avoid war as you couldn't make any profit from it!  Now it is obvious that modern standards of morality cannot condone this idea but, if true, it still illustrates another example of the bible being radically ahead of its time.  

    We have always had doom merchants pining for a golden age when everything was better  There is definitely something of that nature in Hesiod (8th centuary BC) and I recall but cannot place a tablet with similar ideas from Sumeria thousands of years earlier.  Despite the doom-mongers on the whole humanity's moral trajectory has been upwards.  For example, the carpet bombing of German cities in the 2nd world war was protested against by a tiny number of pacifist who were widely seen as traitors.  Today, western politicians recognize that even 1 civilian casualty will create public resentment and if it's a child then they may be an outcry!  The Bible was ahead of its time when it was written.  The problem arises when people fail to grasp that, "modern" three thousand years ago can be atavistic, barbaric and repellent in 2011.

  37. > bizarrely

    I think that's the key word.

    At any rate, what you're saying is that the warfare and genocide parts of the Bible are truly commands of God, and justified based on various criteria, such as the moral climate of the day. As far as I can tell, that's a more-than-sufficient explanation of why Christians aren't gung-ho pacifists.

  38. It is those who KNOW that they're interpretation of scripture is the "right" one - the arrogant and proud ones - who I was referring to.... but your observation is correct and humorous as well.

  39. A God who changes is a real living God for a real living and suffering world. YHWH (I shall be that I shall be) becomes whatever is necessary (even a crucified godforsaken Jesus on a Roman cross) to save his beloved creation and bring it into the fullness of the cosmic sabbath of universal equitableness and rest. It is the repentance (change of mind) of YHWH as publicly displayed by Jesus demanding to undergo the bapistism of John that signals to the world that a new face of YHWH is being revealed to the world, a face of the coming God that all will be reconciled to.

  40. I am sorry that I have taken so long to respond to your question. Partly I've needed to think but mostly I'm just disorganized :)

    So, does "my" God change? I do not know.  However, I would not dare to insist that God cannot change, it is not my place to place limits on God.

    More broadly I feel very uncomfortable with the use of, "your God", in the original question.  God does not belong to me, I belong to him.  I cannot define or limit God and my best possible image will only ever be a faint shadow of him.  I believe that a great many of Christianity's failings can be blamed on those who do believe that God belongs to them and that they, and only they, understand him perfectly.  

    No human understanding of God can ever be free from error and I hope that our understanding, however limited is improving with time.  The writers who produced the New Testament saw an image of God revealed in Jesus that was very different from the God perceived by the authors of the Old Testament.  A human living today lives in a mental world radically different from that of the first century.  They live in an intellectual landscape shaped by centuries of scientists investigating the physical universe  and millennia of artists exploring what being human means.  How can our understanding of God not then be different?  Perhaps it is possible to hope that it is better, if only a little?

    To sum up, I don't know if God can or does change.  However, I am certain that our grasp of the nature of God 

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