The Long View 2003-02-27: What Would Jesus Do?

This is one of the posts I turned to often when I was considering converting to Catholicism. My own reading of the Gospels matched up entirely with John's description here: Jesus of Nazareth said some astonishing things, even at the distance of 2,000 years. I'm not sure I know what he meant much of the time, but I do know this man was very much unlike the men who are often compared with him.

It was also clear to me that interpretation of the Bible was an enterprise fraught with difficulty. Necessary, for those who seek to pick up our cross and follow Him, but also very easy to get wrong. Something I thought John had said, but I haven't been able to find in his archived website, is the most important question is not "What Would Jesus Do?" Rather, it is "What Would Jesus Have Us Do?" Since Christ came to expiate our sins, which is precisely what we cannot do ourselves, this is an important point. Jesus did his job, now the rest is up to us.

On the gripping hand, this means that we need to figure out what to do in many situations without expecting a pat answer from Scripture. War and politics are foremost among these things where Christ left us with little concrete guidance. I'm more sympathetic now to the efforts the Catholic Church made in 2002-2003 to prevent war in Iraq. Given the appalling state of the country now, and the persecution the Christian minority suffered in a democratic Iraq, it would appear that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had a valid point. Would that we had heeded their words. Unfortunately, the primary thing the United States seems to have learned about war in the last fifteen years is that the news cycle is easier to manage if the people dying aren't American. We continue to foment war around the world, but we have learned to let other people do the killing and dying for us. Unfortunately, the USCCB has had less to say about this.

Perhaps the more fruitful question is what will the future bring? John expected the formation of a universal state during the twenty-first century. Several of the universal states that we know of have been theocracies, so the key question here seems to be: will the universal state that forms be a theocracy? And if so, which religion will it espouse?

What Would Jesus Do?

The problem with trying to formulate the political theory of the Gospels is that there isn't one. As far as I can recall, every time a political issue came up, Jesus made a wisecrack. Consider a partial list: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's"; "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone"; "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword"; "The poor you will always have with you." Jesus actually indicated a specific course of action in each of the situations that occasioned these remarks. However, it is pretty clear that, in each case, Jesus deliberately declined the invitation to formulate an ideology. He was not even much interested in history, in any conventional sense. "There will be wars and rumors of wars." Thanks.
In The Cunning Man, Robertson Davies remarks that, while there may be real power in prayer, it is hard to get God interested in the stock market or examination results. In fact, the really disconcerting thing about God, as He appears in the New Testament, is His almost complete indifference to things that human beings think are so all-fired important. There is just a little on sexual ethics, for instance. Slavery is no more than mildly discountenanced, by a few oblique phrases from St. Paul. Notoriously, the New Testament lacks a coherent account of the afterlife. And then there's diet. Apparently, one of the things that most people in the world want from religion is some rules about what they can eat and when they can eat it. Christians don't fully appreciate how odd their religion is in not having dietary laws in its basic text. (There is just a little in Acts 15, of course, but few versions of Christianity have ever elaborated on the matter.)
In none of these areas of divine reticence should we infer that the activities in question are forbidden to Christians, or even that no theological principles apply. These areas are often matters of life and death, so we have to deal with them. What we do decide will not be a mere construct: these freedoms touch on the deadly serious issues to which the power of "binding and loosing" applies. Among them is the whole question of statecraft, including the question of war and peace.
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There are three ways that Christians have tried to apply Christianity to the question of government:
First ,there is the pietistic response, which limits the political duties of Christians to submission; or, in extreme circumstances, to passive resistance. In this interpretation, the Gospels forbid Christians to employ even that minimum of violence that is needed to maintain public order.
Second, there is theocracy, by which the state is seen as incarnating the divine order in the world.
Third, there is the Augustinian approach, which holds that no political order is wholly coincident with the City of God, but that governments can be more or less good, and that Christians owe them their support as a matter of charity.
These three options are not a historical sequence, and they are not a dialectical sequence in which the porridge is first too hot, then too cold, then just right. The first option does incorporate the Gospels' unshielded ethics, which enjoin nonresistance to evil without qualification, as well as complete indifference to economics and self-support. Some Christians have always tried to live just that way. Still, it is probably a category mistake. I don't mean the obvious point that the "Counsels of Perfection" are directed to the behavior of Christians as individuals, not to the behavior of Christian public officials. Arguably, all Christians should be anarchists. Rather, the Gospel ethic defines a trajectory of the individual will. Some behaviors are absolutely forbidden by scripture. (Killing people, by the way, isn't one of them: the Decalogue prohibits "murder.") The New Testament, characteristically, restates what had been prohibition of acts as prohibitions of intent. Anger looms larger than violence, for instance, or lust than adultery. In place of specific prohibitions and injunctions, the Gospels give motives. These motives can lend support to a theory of pacifism. However, they cannot be said to require pacifism.
Theocracy has not been in favor for some centuries now, for good reason. It dumbs down the state, for one thing, by making constructive criticism more difficult. Even if your primary concern is the advancement of religion, it has notoriously been the case in modern times that the more the state supports the church, the more the church declines. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that sometimes theocracy was the best that a society could do, and it was not always such a bad best. Theocracies from the Byzantine Empire to Puritan New England have often provided reasonably good government, as well as genuine support to the spiritual well-being of their citizens. There is also the embarrassing fact that government in the Gospels is a divine institution. Pilate's authority "comes from above," and so presumably does Caesar's. Whatever else early Christians thought about the Roman Empire, they did not think that it was illegitimate.
This is not to say that any given government is the only possible government. Christianity requires no particular form of government, much less the existence of any particular state. Even at the height of cooperation between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, the Empire never quite became a point of doctrine. Theocracies, however, generally respond badly to the observation that the world can live without them. The real problem with theocracies is, oddly enough, the same as the problem with pietism: both try to make necessary what is in fact contingent.
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This brings us to the prudent, responsible, grown-up statecraft of the Augustinian tradition. Despite being named after a Catholic saint, the Church does not quite hold the patent on this tradition. This is just as well, considering the often incompetent use that the Church has made of this tradition in connection with the Iraq crisis.
Catholic social doctrine, as it evolved by the end of the 20th century, tended to conflate the domestic and international spheres. It is standard social theory to say that the police can use force, even lethal force, to protect public order. As properly constituted officials, they are morally permitted to do things that private persons generally would not be. Just War Theory uses much the same logic, but extends it between states. It also applies between a state and pirates, or to other irregular menaces to peace. One of the goals of Just War doctrine was to make clear the illicitness of "private war": that is, war conducted by persons or groups who do not have the authority to do so. This is the kind of thinking that got rid of feudalism. More recently, the Church has brought the same logic to bear in connection with the sovereignty of states.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very keen on international organizations, so much so that it might be taken as a brief for world government, but that may be saying too much. Say rather that the Church assumes that the purpose of the international system is to create and maintain "the tranquility of order." Organizations and institutions that promote this order are to be defended and extended. The Church promotes a multilateral approach to war and peace. Like feudal barons, states should lose the legal competence to employ violence outside their borders. Increasingly, the Vatican diplomatic corps has come around to the position that the United Nations Security Council is the only body in the world with the legal competence to authorize the use of force, except in cases of immediate self-defense.
This development will prove to be another blow to the Church's credibility. The Vatican's use of this reasoning to oppose US and British action in Iraq has not reached the levels of fatuity evidenced by some Catholic and Protestant peace groups. Nonetheless, it repeats the error of the pietists and the theocrats in mistaking an optional for a necessary means. The principle that statesman should seek to spread the tranquility of order universally is well founded. So is the proposition that this requires global institutions. The problem is that the Vatican has placed its hopes in the UN, an organization whose very headquarters is falling apart.
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The Iraq matter has undermined every international institution, of which the Roman Catholic Church is the most venerable. It's all the result of the innocent good-will of Colin Powell. If the US had simply gone ahead with the invasion of Iraq last Fall, which seemed to be the plan, the integrity of the UN would have been maintained, for better or worse. There was already enough legal authorization from the Security Council to cover the operation. Had the matter not been brought to the Council again, the world would have been spared the "Dr. Blix and His Elves" show, and Americans now would not be calling the French cheese-eating surrender-monkeys. The European Union would still be a union. Since Secretary Powell persuaded President Bush to "build a coalition" and "get the international community on board," the situation has just become worse and worse.
The UN and the EU may be scrap when all this is over. As for the Church, people will chiefly remember how hard it tried to prevent the overthrow of the Baathist dictatorship in Iraq. The Iraqis most of all will remember this.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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