The Tough Choices

Caleb Stegall has made a late addition to version 2.3 of the New Pantagruel, Natural Law, the Death Penalty, and Political Theology: An Editorial Response to First Things. The essay is an examination of an apparent contradiction between FT editors on the matter of political theology, but as a response to that contradiction, Stegall begins to outline his own political theology, based in the writings of Augustine.

By recognizing and articulating clearly the source, location, and function of both the natural law and the Christian law, and by understanding them as mixed in an age that was passing away but which contained ?loved things held in common,? Augustine made a key breakthrough in the development of political theology which in its fundamental form remains valid today?a penitent, tragic political theology bound to pay an ongoing debt to nature yet cemented by a love that is both universal and particular: it transcends the City of God and orders all mankind; it is also concerned with the things of this world??the things which are passing away??and not with the things to come. However, this Augustinian balance has always been precarious. When the tension between the natural law and the Christian law collapses, the result is a disordering pressure either towards a rolling back of the protective shadow of the Christian law and engagement in the world wholly under the stark glare of nature which rewards only power and results in open tribal and political conflict, or towards a Gnostic denial of the reality of the law of nature and ideological attempts to remake the present age into the age to come.

Stegall’s reading of Augustine is not typical in Catholic and Reformed circles. Calvinists, in particular, see the work of the government as the work of God, and as such, it is a praiseworthy activity (I’m often frightened, really, by some Calvinist/conservative web sites that see the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq as God’s work). I’ve never been comfortable with such a perspective, and I’ve found the pacificist views of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas to be in agrreement with Christ’s own teaching. But, a pacificist political theology is problematic. How does the State maintain order? Can the police use force? Is it permissiable to defend yourself? Christ tells us to turn the other cheek, but am I ready to turn if someone threatens my family?

The pacificist’s anti-war position is not difficult to defend. But things get sticky when we examine the use of violence by the State. Some pacificists believe that the State may use non-lethal force — rubber bullets or billy clubs — to maintain societal order. But this strikes me as sort of an odd compromise — violence is permissable in the name of order, but deadly violence isn’t. It is, however, the position of realist, understanding that a pacificist can’t have it both ways — no violence and societal order. We live in a fallen world, and life in that world is, to borrow a phrase, nasty, brutish, and short. The relative comfort in which we live is a result of a State which has used violence as a means to an end — to promote and maintain a (mostly) just and ordered society*.

It is here that Stegall’s perspective on Augustine’s “penitent, tragic political theology” separates from the typical evangelical and even reformed theology — this necessity of maintaining social order in the City of Man requires that those involved in the politcal process be prepared to “sin boldy” and understand that societal order does not always mesh easily with God’s commands. Many in the reformed tradition (beginning, of course, with Calvin) view the responsibilities of civil government as mandated, and blessed, by God — including war and capital punishment — and that those who are called into civil service are worthy of praise for fulfilling these responsibilities. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with this political theology, given my pacificist leanings, and what Christ had to say. At the same, I don’t have many good answers for political questions, and the challenge of what is to be done to maintain order in society, and, more importantly, what is to be done if my family is threatened.

It’s somewhat therapeutic to examine the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a committed pacificist, but when faced with the horror that was the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer realized that such an evil could not simply be overcome by turning the other cheek. To that end, Bonhoeffer joined Abwehr resistance (though there is much speculation as to the extent of his participation). Bonhoeffer, however, struggled with his participation as he understood that violence undermined the Gospel message. Yet he also understood that Hitler could not be defeated with non-violent resistance, and therefore decided to “sin boldly” and join the fight. John de Gruchy, reviewing Stanley Hauerwas’ Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, says:

Bonhoeffer?s reluctant involvement in the conspiracy against Hitler certainly does not provide unambiguous Christian justification for resorting to violence and war. He knew only too well that even a “just war” is still war with all its awful consequences. Rather, Bonhoeffer confronts us as someone who, in following Christ, made a personally costly decision that doing nothing to rid the world of Hitler was worse than doing what he did, however ambiguous the moral issues. That is what peacemaking demanded of him at that time and place. In making that decision he could only “sin boldly” and cast himself on the grace of God.

Of course, Bonhoeffer’s case is one of extremes. But the point remains — the business of life in the City of Man is a dirty one. What remains is our response. The pacifists hold a Biblical truth, as given in the Sermon on the Mount, that we are to be peacemakers, and that we should not repay violence with violence. I’d like to fancy myself a true pacifist, but I cannot account for two things: 1) How do I respond when my family is threatened? and 2) Can I really expect the City of Man to survive without the force wielded by the civil authorities? These questions carry their own sets of problems. Should Christians really be concerned with the state of the City of Man? Why not go the way of the anarachists and wish away society completely. Yet such theology seems disingenuous — here I am, the anarchist, living in my house in a city, using public utilities, under the protection of the civil government. Even if I don’t rely on the services of government — we move out of the city and off the grid — we still live in the long shadow in the fruits of the State.

Tough choices indeed. Stegall’s reading of Augustine is comforting in its humility. We will fail God in the City of Man, maintaining our families and our communities, and we can do little more than throw ourselves at the feet of Christ and ask for His mercy. Mistakes will be made. We can only hope “[I]f the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.

* It can be argued that our society is only ordered and just for a selection of the population, but I would counter that the majority of citizens live in relative safety.