I’ve talked with some more people about my reaction to Yoder, and one point where most people seem to disagree with me is the idea that all states are inherently coercive. Or that they are, but coercion isn’t the same as violence. It’s true that the boundaries of “violence” are pretty blurry; on a basic level it can mean any action that causes pain to someone else, which Jesus clearly did not rule out. Limiting it to the physical seems like a meaningless distinction, since there is all sorts of emotional harm that people can inflict on each other.
When I think about it though, the coercion aspect is only part of what’s bothering me. The real issue is one of faith. Living in any state or community requires sacrifices. You sacrifice some of your income to the IRS, you sacrifice your impulses to the law, and sometimes you sacrifice your beliefs about what’s right to the majority vote, or whatever body you see as having legitimate authority. And every sacrifice requires faith. Or at least you hope it does, because the only other reason to make those sacrifices is fear. It doesn’t necessarily mean faith in the supernatural; but it does mean faith in the communal entity, in its laws and norms and authorities. It’s not surprising that the earliest states were essentially theocratic; believing that your ruler was a god, or something near to it, certainly made that faith uncomplicated.
People in social-guardian jobs, like soldier and police officer, make bigger sacrifices than most, and require greater faith than most. Some of them probably just have depressed limbic systems and need to live on the edge of death to feel alive. But the subcultures of those professions seem to build a strong culture of faith and loyalty. Sometimes it takes on a form resembling the old theocratic standard of mystical nationalism: crosses on shields and hung from guns, a messianic sense of your country’s place in the world, and so on. Sometimes it’s a more modest Burkean faith in home, family and community. Sometimes it becomes a faith to the guardian institution itself, as in “the blue religion” of police officers. Such a faith is necessary; the only alternative, really, is that you risk your life because you don’t really care about it.
Most Christians affirm the goodness of the things that the guardians fight for. But what seems out of sync to me is the amount of faith required. The intensity of faith needed for guardian jobs might explain not only why pacifism is a hard sell, but also why the more reasonable constraints of just-war theory often don’t seem to hold in practice. The ambivalent image of the state running from Augustine through Niebuhr — that it’s the best we can do in this sinful, fallen world — is not the stuff that inspires the soldier in the trenches. Recently I talked about the Founding Fathers issue with a man in my church who teaches U.S. history, and he pointed out that while the Fathers were putting together their Enlightenment-inspired tracts about human rights and the consent of the governed, America was full of evangelical and apocalyptic Christians who saw America playing a prophetic role in the Christian drama. It’s a sign of how out of touch Jefferson was that he thought that in the 19th century the whole society would become Unitarian.
What I don’t see Yoder taking into account, in all his high-level theorizing about statecraft, is the extent to which any policy you want to enact depends on the faith of the mass of low-level soldiers and cops. Even if we could somehow have an unarmed police, it would still be a dangerous job — in fact, one would think that in the early stages of disarmament it would be more dangerous than it is now. Lawmakers are depending on the faith that police officers have in the state that they work for, which is necessarily stronger than even the survival instinct. And it really bothers me to think of taking advantage of a faith that we ourselves don’t really share.
I think part of the problem here is that Yoder seems to see violence simply as an indulgence. If you must indulge in violence, he seems to be saying, we can at least try to direct it toward a reasonably good end. But while it’s true that men seem to love war in a primitive way, I think most people who’ve been through it would agree that war is hell, which is why fighting them requires faith. For the families and friends of the fighters, it’s at least as much of a sacrifice.
However, I think the abuse-of-faith issue is a problem even when it doesn’t mean dying. Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose you’re a missionary in the deepest Amazon jungle. You hear through the native grapevine about a nearby tribe that everyone hates because it is so violent. They go headhunting, kidnapping women, abusing captives, etc. So, intrepid soldier of Christ that you are, you head off to try to talk to them.
When you get there, for whatever reason — your appearance, your technology, or some omen — the tribe thinks you’re a god. They kneel and bow before you, and though you try to tell them they’re mistaken, you don’t know their dialect well enough to make yourself understood. And then you realize you have an opportunity. The next time they organize a war party, you could stand up and block their way, and they wouldn’t dare go past you. You can end their violence by fiat. You just have to hope that once you learn their language well enough to explain, they’ll understand your motives were pure.
Of course, you see that there are a lot of problems with this plan. It would be practicing deception — even if you are technically not lying — and encouraging idolatry. The tribe may not be so understanding once they find out, and in fact decide you are totally untrustworthy and not listen to the stuff about Jesus. And they might be harmed by being pacified in some way that you can’t yet see. Maybe their region is especially poor in resources and they raid so they can eat. Maybe a neighboring tribe will take advantage of their quiescence to stage a surprise attack.
But the alternative would be extremely hard. In order to convince them you’re not a god, you have to act as unlike a god as possible, and never use your power. You have to sit by while they launch raiding parties and haul back women to rape. And if something happens in front of your face and you react in a normal human way — say, jumping up and yelling “Stop!” — you will be obeyed for the wrong reasons.
What do you do?
This is all rather far-fetched, of course, but I think it’s the Constantinian temptation in a nutshell. The original sin, according to Yoder and practically every other theologian before the 18th century, was that humans sought to be like gods. And when Constantine declared Christians to be a protected group, most people obeyed him because they were used to thinking of the emperor as a god.
The emperor is an extreme case, but really a great many Christians find themselves with powers that, properly speaking, they should not have. American voters have, in their measure, all the powers of the American imperium, as well as the power of life and death over many of our citizens. And to some extent, using those powers may be unavoidable. Even Paul, when arrested, called upon his special rights as a Roman citizen, although in his letters he denounced any preferential treatment based on nationality.
So I don’t have a precise answer to this, but I do think this is an aspect of Christian political activism that’s been lacking from the discussion.