Your scapegoat “pacifism”

A response to Matthew Schmitz

Dec 19, 2014 by

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Dec. 12, a deputy editor of First Things, Matthew Schmitz, posted a rather unusual piece: “Our Partial Pacifism.

It starts out with the bold statement, “I am inclined to blame pacifism for our embrace of torture.”

I say it’s an unusual piece because it took me numerous readings and conversations with a number of (pacifist) friends to figure out just what Schmitz was trying to get at in his brief post. My initial reaction was confusion. I was profoundly bewildered as to how one could connect the dots of a claim like that, i.e. blaming pacifism for “our” embrace of torture. The collective “we” obviously being the entire United States of America, which was my first red flag.

So here’s what my friends and I took from Schmitz’s reasoning:

  • There is a utilitarian “ends justify the means” frame being used to discuss torture in the post-9/11, Global War on Terrorism context, especially in light of the senate report on CIA torture released this week.
  • We need a different moral vocabulary to make better judgments about what is and is not just conduct in war. (The implication being — and I agree — that torture is morally wrong, at all times everywhere.)
  • The Christian just war tradition is one such vocabulary about making sound moral judgments, including that torture is wrong.
  • Christian pacifism is a form of moral absolutism (“all war is evil — that it is hell, so we must stay the hell out of it”) and is therefore unable to make nuanced moral judgments about action in war.
  • While many or most may not embrace pacifism, “we” seem to have generally embraced the “pacifist conclusion” that “all war is hell . . . so we must stay the hell out of it,” including in any and all attempts to make moral judgments about conduct in war.
  • Therefore, pacifism, albeit a partial one, is to blame for our inability to make nuanced moral judgments about conduct in war.

There are a few problems my friends and I found in this line of reasoning. It seems there are some rather chasmic leaps being made. Rather than a lengthy response unpacking those concerns, I’ll just pose some questions in response:

  • How can the moral calculus being employed by those in power to make the kinds of conduct decisions in war in any way be connected to either just war reasoning or pacifism? My guess: They can’t. But perhaps that’s not what Schmitz is arguing.
  • Why does the target of the argument seem to be those commenting on the conduct of those in power, rather than those in power conducting themselves in a way that the author and I each find morally reprehensible? Where does the moral culpability lie? Surely not the talking heads!
  • Why does the pacifism Schmitz describes sound nothing like the Christian theological pacifism I’ve been versed in from the likes of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas? Moral absolutism is rejected at the outset in this school, on rigorous philosophical and theological grounds, and it seems like he’s either unaware or unwilling to grant that. (Or unable — it’s a short post, I understand the limits of the blog.)

My lingering impression is consistent with the general vibe I often get from First Things (which at times I greatly appreciate): A resentment by Christians in America at the loss of a seat at the tables of power and influence in American society. It’s the same old problem Hauerwas identified: The subject of American moral reasoning by Christian ethicists, professional or otherwise, is not the Church, but America. This “partial pacifism” is therefore a scapegoat upon which to load this resentment and send it off into the wilderness to die for “our” sins.

But if the Christian in America doesn’t assume the royal “we” is the nation-state, but is rather the Church, that dramatically changes the approach to moral reasoning for Christians in America, or elsewhere. We live in a post-Christian and post-Christendom society. That has never been more clear than it is today, watching the conduct of the United States government, our militarized police forces, our cutthroat economy, etc.

With the extreme and worsening forms of violence that the United States perpetuates on certain segments of its own citizenry, and then upon others around the world — rigorous, nuanced Christian pacifism has never looked more “reasonable” and “responsible” when it comes to loving God and our neighbors and seeking the peace of the neighborhoods, cities and nation(s) in which we find ourselves.

(Many thanks to my conversations partners: Jeremy Yoder, Jonathan Swartz, Laura Stone, Ric Hudgens and various MennoNerds.)

[UPDATE]

Matthew Schmitz was kind enough to read this piece and respond over Twitter. Here are his remarks:

@bgumm My argument, like Anscombe’s, is aimed against the smug whateverism of consequentialists.
— Matthew Schmitz (@matthewschmitz) December 12, 2014
My targets are Krauthammer and Boot, not pacifists, whose pacifism I don’t want to test.
— Matthew Schmitz (@matthewschmitz) December 12, 2014
Glad for this response, and Cupp’s.
— Matthew Schmitz (@matthewschmitz) December 12, 2014

I’m grateful for those responses, though my concern remains: It seems a strange approach to invoke the word “pacifism” as an object of blame if what you’re really arguing against is something else entirely.

But, as I responded to Schmitz on Twitter, he did get a pack of pacifists fired up, which is always good fun.

Brian R. Gumm is a bi-vocational minister in the Church of the Brethren. Based in Toledo, Iowa, Brian works in educational technology for Eastern Mennonite University and is exploring church-planting and community peacebuilding initiatives in his local community. He writes at Restorative Theology, where this blog post originally appeared.


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