Review: Christ and Crisis

Christ and Crisis

Christ and Crisis, Charles Malik. Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2015 (originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962).

Summary: Contends that the deepest crisis of his (our) age is a spiritual crisis that the church properly addresses by laying hold of all the resources and pursuing the calling of people of faith.

Charles Malik was a Lebanese diplomat and a drafter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as a later U.N. convention against genocide. He presided over the 1958 U.N. General Assembly and later taught at Harvard, Dartmouth, Notre Dame and American University. He was a thoughtful and deeply committed Orthodox Christian involved in several international ecumenical causes.

Malik wrote this book as the world faced the aggressive advance of Communism in the years following World War II, when nations were gaining dependence from colonial powers and the West was attempting to re-define the place of democracy in the world order. It was a time of crisis and activism and Malik was in the midst of it all.

Contrary to what you might expect, this book is not a call to Christian social activism, to political engagement in the crises of the day. Rather Malik, especially in the opening address (the book is a transcription of seven addresses Malik gave in this period), argues that the most significant crisis the world is facing is a crisis of spirit and the most significant calling of the church is to pursue the disciplines of devotion, the practices of holiness, and courageous witness to the message of the gospel. At one point he speaks disparagingly of churchmen who wade into international affairs and social issues about which they know little.

In some respects, he sounds like more modern writers like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas in calling for the church to be the church and as such be its own distinctive order in the world. But there is a crucial difference–he is not a pacifist but one who might be in the principled just war camp. He writes at one point:

War is terrible, and not only will a Christian not provoke it, but he will do everything in his power to prevent it from breaking out. But six things do not follow from this: (1) It does not follow that if war is forced upon him that he will not defend himself; (2) nor does it follow that he will not in advance prepare to defend himself, since there is nothing to guarantee that war will not be forced upon him; (3) nor does it follow that if and when war is forced upon him he will not fight like a man or will not fight for complete victory;  (4) nor does it follow that, since cold war is a kind of war, he will not fight it to victory; (5) nor does it follow that under conditions of war, whether cold or hot, he will blaspheme God and cease to be a Christian, loving Christ above everything else and his neighbor as himself; (6) nor, finally, does it follow that, if he is opposed to war, he has any right to be opposed only to that form of war which is “international,” namely, war between the nations, while saying nothing whatsoever about that other form of war which goes by the name of “class war,” namely, war between social and economic classes which could be just as terrible and just as unjust and just as devastating as any so-called “international war.” (p. 100)

Here we have thoughtful, nuanced, and “both-and” thinking, that while not finding agreement with everyone, transcended simplistic and polarized positions of his time and ours.

While addressing the great crises of his day, he also spoke trenchantly to the challenges all Christians face that he summarizes as coming on six fronts: the world and its temptations, our own memories, our tendency to sloth, our inveterate pride, our daily temptation to worship things and objects, and finally, the lures of the Enemy (pp. 65-66).

This is a book that speaks into our own activist age. Those who identify as progressive may not agree, but I hope they will engage with his critique of his own age and his analysis of the spiritual dimensions of the crises we face and our response to them.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Nonviolent Action

nonviolent actionNonviolent Action by Ron Sider. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.

Summary: Ron Sider argues from a number of instances over the past seventy-five years that nonviolent action can work and bring about political change.

“I ain’t gonna study war no more”

Ronald J. Sider thinks we have spent far too long and far too much studying war. It is time, particularly for persons of faith, to devote ourselves and our money and our lives to study peace: the use of nonviolent means of protest and resistance in the pursuit of peace and a just order. He argues that both pacifists and just war advocates actually have much in common in advocating the use of nonviolent efforts as much as possible, with the only difference being between war never being a resort and war being a last resort.

Sider builds his case by recounting the numerous instances of nonviolent resistance over the past seventy-five years beginning with Ghandhi’s effort to secure Indian independence from the British empire. The first part of the book recounts Ghandhi’s, and India’s, long road to freedom and Ghandhi’s persistent and principled decision to renounce violence. Following chapters recount Martin Luther King, Jr’s leadership of the civil rights movement and commitment to loving, nonviolent resistance, seen most vividly at the Edmund Pettus Bridge as chronicled in the recent Selma. He tells the story of his own involvement with Witness for Peace’s work in Nicaragua standing between invading Contras backed by the U.S. and the Nicaraguan people. And he tells the story of the peaceful People Power resistance to the Marcos regime in the Phillipines including the instance when a wheelchair was more powerful than a tank:

    Cardinal Sin tells the story of bedridden, eighty-one year-old Mrs. Monzon, owner of Arrelano University. Everywhere she went, she used a wheelchair. But Mrs. Monzon insisted on joining the people in the streets in front of the camps. When the tanks came, she wheeled in front of the advancing war vehicles. Armed with a crucifix, she called out to the soldiers, “Stop. I am an old woman. You can kill me, but you shouldn’t kill your fellow Filipinos.” Overcome, a soldier jumped off the tank, and embraced the bold nonviolent resister. “I cannot kill you,” he told her, “you are just like my mother.” She stayed in the street in her wheelchair.

    The marines finally withdrew without firing a shot.

Part Two of the book focuses on two instances of nonviolent resistance in the defeat of the Soviet empire. First he tells the story of a Polish pope and a ship yard worker, Lech Walesa, who led the Solidarity Movement, which over ten years, brought an end to the Communist leadership in Poland. Then he turns to the Revolution of Candles in East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventual reunification of Germany.

Recent developments are the focus of Part Three. He begins by describing how Leymah Gbowee led a movement of prayer among Liberian women pursuing peace and justice for the women and children of Liberia during the dictatorship of Charles Taylor. He recounts the nonviolent efforts in the Arab Spring, including the wonderful shalom moment of a ring of Christians forming a protective circle around Muslims at prayer. He ends this section by talking of the work of Peacemaker Teams and similar groups in many parts of the world including in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He concludes the book with the contention that it is time to devote serious attention to nonviolent action. We spend billions on military defense and military academies but virtually nothing for nonviolent resistance and peace academies. He argues that pacifism that engages in nonviolent action is in fact as courageous as armed resistance because it also is willing to die in the pursuit of just and peaceful conflict resolution. He further contends the following:

  1. Nonviolence often accomplishes its aims with far less loss of life.
  2. Nonviolence accomplishes its aims more often than violence.
  3. Nonviolence is more likely to lead to democratic institutions.

One of the sobering implications of all this is the willingness to die without killing. One of the questions Sider left unanswered for me was whether there are circumstances where one should not pursue nonviolent resistance, where force must be met with force. I think particularly of instances when a regime has determined a course of genocide. Here, the evidence seems to be that armed peacekeeping forces have been both necessary and successful in places like Kosovo and South Sudan in stopping genocidal regimes.

Perhaps what this points up is the necessity of what Sider argues. Many nonviolent efforts have been spontaneous and sometimes undisciplined. It is time for rigorous studies and the devotion of resources that inform and make possible disciplined and strategic action. War calls for these things as well as courage. It just makes sense that the pursuit of peace requires no less.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Christian Political Witness

Christian Political WitnessWe were once told by a friend that she would not consider joining our church because it would mean she would have to change her political affiliation. Thankfully, if that ever was true, it is no longer. Yet when some hear the phrase “Christian political witness” it conjures up ideas of church support of a particular political agenda of one of the major political parties or an effort to gain political leverage to impose an agenda on a dissenting public. For many, that is alienating and smacks of the polarized politics so many of us detest.

I found that this volume, consisting of a collection of papers from the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference, explores a very different, and much more nuanced political engagement. Stanley Hauerwas’ opening paper set a tone for the volume challenging the church to think of itself neither as allied with the state in some form of re-constituted Christendom nor simply a marginalized, privatized community in a secular culture but rather its own polis that exists as a public, material witness to the Lordship of Jesus over and against all other powers. The collection returns to this theme at the end as former Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya, David Gitari, in his account of his own courageous witness confronting Daniel arap Moi, proposes an analogy between politics and fire. He writes,

“Our relationship with powers that be should be like our relationship with fire. If you get too close to the fire you get burnt, and if you go too far away you will freeze. Hence stay in a strategic place so that you can be of help. You can support the authority, but when they become corrupt you can criticize fearlessly.”

In between these “bookends” ten other scholars explored various aspects of this topic. Mark Noll looks at the antebellum use of scripture around the issue of slavery as a warning about our use of scripture in political witness, including an example of a more careful hermeneutic. Scot McKnight explores the idea of the kingdom and comes down against popular fashion in arguing that the presence of the kingdom is most visibly expressed through the church.  Timothy Gombis considers the political witness of Paul while George Kalantzis recounts the political engagement of the pre-Constantinian early church with Rome, particularly its refusal to engage in pagan sacrifice and of military service.

The following papers turned to more contemporary issues. Jana Marguerite Bennett suggests that the existence of the church challenges the public/private split and the relegation of family to the private sphere. William T. Cavanaugh explores the Citizens United decision that defines business corporations as persons. His objection to this decision is not the defining of corporations as “person” but the exclusive application of this to business, ignoring the long-standing idea of Christian communities seeing themselves as “bodies” in which individuals exist as part of a larger corporate whole. Peter Leithart turns to the often contested concerns about violence and God’s actions to destroy enemies, which he distinguishes from the unjust and sinful use of force, which he would define as violence.

The next two papers were, for me, the most thought-provoking. Daniel Bell gives us a fresh take on “just war” theory that moves beyond the “public policy checklist” approach to a “Christian discipleship” approach that considers the virtues the church nurtures related to just war criteria. Following this, Jennifer McBride challenges the triumphal and self-righteous approach often taken by churches with a repentance-based approach that acknowledges our own complicity in sin and invites others to join us in turning from it toward God.

The penultimate paper by David P. Gushee observes the absence in evangelicalism of a social teaching tradition similar to that found in Roman Catholicism or mainline Protestantism. He proposes a “social ethics of costly practical solidarity with the oppressed” and works out in brief form how this might apply to ten contemporary issues.

The question of how one engages or does not engage our political and power structures is unavoidable for any thoughtful citizen, believing or not. What ethic will inform that engagement? What ends will one pursue? The papers in this book provided helpful perspectives toward political engagements and structures that foster flourishing societies while resisting church or state tyranny and corruption.