a consistent ethic of non-violence

My father-in-law, Greg, has volunteered one of the most poignant statements I’ve ever heard about non-violence. After encountering a young would-be robber outside their property, Greg was asked if he’d ever considered keeping a gun. His response was as sharp as it was brief: “No. I’d rather be robbed than kill someone.”

Non-violence is hardest in situations where violence feels justified. The Christchurch mosque shooter (who we should continue not to name) brutally murdered and injured many victims. Many people, fueled by a sense of righteous justice, would have shot him if they’d had the chance. The dutiful New Zealand police, however, apprehended him without taking his life. Or consider Mohamed Jauber’s forgiveness offered to the shooter, who killed a family friend.

I take it as an evidence-based observation that violence will naturally lead to more violence. We have to restrain ourselves from the tendency to escalate or avenge. Justice is one thing – mercy and grace are another.

There are many levels of violence. Let us not think that we can be violent at one level without encouraging violence at another.

In what follows, I want to focus on non-violence at the level of political discourse. We have – rightly – been reminded many times to challenge harmful ideas whenever we encounter them. I want to suggest strongly that we must do this challenging with a spirit of non-violence.

I am concerned that political discourse could become even more violent. For example (far too soon after the tragic events, long before the bodies of the victims were in the ground), I’ve seen people weaponising the Christchurch tragedy. It is used as confirmation that they were right all along, and that those they disagree with were always contributing to the problem.

In the name of “challenging white supremacy”, we must not engage in social violence (online or in person) that shames, labels, mocks, ridicules, ostracizes, or otherwise pushes into isolation those we see as holding wrong views.

Let us assume, for the moment, that your view is right and helpful, and that the other person’s view is wrong and harmful. I believe that if we push the person to the dark margins of society, the view is free to grow and spread. Evil grows in the dark. But light dispels darkness.

So you have an acquaintance who is racist? Do you want them to be able to enjoy their racist views without any challenge? Be as nice to them as you can. Socialise with them. Include them. If and when you have (or have built) a relationship with them, and when it is appropriate to respectfully challenge their views, do so without mockery, labels, blame or arrogance. If your view is strong enough, you won’t need to get mean or loud to make your point. Publicly shaming or rejecting them may feel good for you, but it won’t make a hint of difference to them – in fact it could only strengthen their views.

Try to understand why they might have come to have the view they have before asserting your view. Spend the necessary time looking for even the smallest superficial points of common ground. (For example, a left-leaning person could agree with a right-leaning person that benefit fraud is wrong. Or a right-leaning person could agree with a left-leaning person that not every person on the benefit is just lazy and could be working.)

The opposite is ugly, violent politics. Where frustrated people feel not listened to – and aren’t listened to. Where their belief that dialogue and talking are pointless – because all they’ve ever experienced is being labeled and ignored. Where they feel more and more isolated from society. Where this isolation breeds resentment, rage and an intensification of their beliefs. Where their mental health suffers. Where they eventually do horrible things.

In the way I engage with those I disagree with, I have to model the kind of ethics I am trying to promote. It won’t do to talk acceptance of people in a way that rejects people. It won’t do to talk of understanding people when I won’t give their view a hearing. It won’t do to talk of embracing difference if I unfriend those I disagree with. It won’t do to promote kindness when I act like a jerk.

If I want to see less violence in the world, I have to live non-violence at every level.

god is like… pt 2

For all of the supposed humility of negative theology (“We’re merely saying what God could not be like…”) or metaphor (“We’re only saying what God is like, not what God is…”), Christians make the audacious claim that we are right and all other religions are wrong… don’t we?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, on one hand. We do claim that Christianity is true and all other religions are false.  But not because we think that our beliefs are more reasonable (in the sense of us thinking more reasonably than others to work out what God is really like), but rather because we believe that God has actually revealed himself fully and finally in a startlingly particular (male, Jewish, bearded, 1st century prophet and rabbi from Nazareth) and shockingly embarrassing (mocked, criminalised, dying, suffering, and a failure of a Messiah) human being.  It’s not that we are ‘right’ in that we figured out who God was with all of our theology, but that God is revealed in Jesus.  We didn’t find truth about God – the Truth showed himself to us.  Get Jesus wrong and you get God wrong.

On the other hand, no. Believing that non-Christian religions are false is not the same as saying that everything they believe is wrong.  Sticking to the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ faiths for a moment, they all share a form of monotheism ((but not that Jesus-shaped variety of trinitarian monotheism, of course.)).  In polytheistic Hinduism, there is a recognition of Brahman as unknowable and transcendent ((though, not, of course, incarnate at the same time)).  Traditional Maori spirituality has the “parentless” ultimate creator, Io Matua Kore – similar to the notion of God as a First Cause (or uncaused cause – or unmoved mover, etc.).  In fact, any religion that has any concept of God at all has (in one sense) at least something in common with Christianity – namely (as broadly speaking as possible) that there is a spiritual dimension to reality.

Allow me to quickly refer to a passage of the Bible in which we see both this ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in tension.

Acts 17 tells of when Paul, himself having moved from a militant form of Judaism ((possibly of the ‘house of Shammai’?)) to Christian faith, went to Athens.  While waiting for some of his co-workers, he observed the pervasive worship of pagan/Greek gods/goddesses, and (as a good ‘atheistic’ monotheist should) was ‘provoked’ by what he saw.  People were interested in the new gods ((“Iesous/Jesus” & “Anastasis/Resurrection”)) they thought he was talking about with some of the Stoic & Epicurean philosophers, so they let him speak.

What he does not say is, “Well, you guys are members of false religions, and my religion is the truth.”  Instead, his response begins with points of agreement and works from there to the God revealed in Jesus.

“Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. For as I was walking around and looking closely at the objects you worship, I even found an altar with this written on it: ‘To the unknown god.’ So I am telling you about the unknown object you worship.”

He even draws upon their own pagan worship songs and poems to tell them about the God revealed in Jesus.

“For ‘in Him we live and move and have our being‘, as also certain of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.‘”

Lest it be thought that Paul only affirms their beliefs, he also critiques their pagan worship.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in shrines made by human hands, and he isn’t served by hands as if he needed anything. He himself gives everyone life, breath, and everything.”

And

“So if we are God’s children, we shouldn’t think that the divine being is like gold, silver, or stone, or is an image carved by human imagination and skill. Though God has overlooked those times of ignorance, he now commands everyone everywhere to repent, for he has set a day when he is going to judge the world with justice through a man he has appointed, and he has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

So, to sum up this longer-than-necessary post, for Christians believe that they ‘know’ ((not in the omniscient, list-of-facts sense, but in the relational sense)) the Truth about God, because they ‘know’ Jesus who is the Truth.  For the Christian, getting to know God equals getting to know Jesus, and you can start getting to know Him right where you are, as a pantheist, polytheist, pagan, Muslim, Jew, etc.