Tuesday, March 8, 2011

More on The Shalom Church: Why are Mainline Protestants So Obsessed with Peace?

I continue the bear the cross of the Craig Nessan book just so that I can put it on my CV!

In any case, there was a rather interesting moment in the book when he discusses his belief that the Church's responsibility is to engage in "peace-making" (i.e. support the UN, nuclear freeze, etc.). He loudly endorses pacifism, citing Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and some Dutch-American guy who got thrown out of his pastoral office for not wanting the US to get involved with WWI (he was against Korean and WWII as well!).

He says that these figures dispel "the myth of salvific violence" which suggest that violence is sometimes necessary to solve problems. Most people believe this myth, namely because violence is empirically necessary to solve a certain class of problems. Also, Nessan never seems to mention that all these figures lived in constitutional democracies, which operated within the English common law tradition. As George Orwell remarked, "all of Russia Gandhis disappear in the middle of the night."

But I digress. I'm probably preaching to the choir!

Anyways, Nessan tries to trace the concept of God being a god of peace throughout the Bible in order to endorse his position. He faces a couple of problems: 1. Most of his citations of "peace" in the Bible have to do with the existential peace between God and sinners that happens through justification. It has precious little to do with actual political peace, which the Bible doesn't really view as being possible this side of the Second Coming: "wars and rumors of wars, etc." This leads into his second problem 2. God throughout the Bible endorses violence and encourages it under certain circumstances. Granted, all violence is at odds with God's original intention for creation, but between the Fall and the Second Coming, it's really necessary, as common sense shows.

In order to save himself from this boggle, Nessan waves his hand and says "Hey, you could read the Bible as endorsing violence, but that would be bad. So let's read it as saying that God is for peace at all costs. That sounds better!"

Now to someone like myself who believes that God inspired the authors of Scripture to the point of determining their very grammar and word-choice, this sounds presumptuous and massively blasphemous. How does he know? How can he deal with this texts so cavalierly?

The answer is twofold. First, he doesn't really believe in the inspiration of the text. Mainline Protestants talk a good game on inspiration, but then don't buy inerrancy. What's the point of the doctrine of inspiration if it doesn't somehow guarantee the truthfulness of the text? God somehow was out to lunch for part of the text, but not the good stuff you just happen to like?

The second point is that mainline Protestants are obsessed with the concept of "Peace" and therefore he knows that everyone will automatically agree with him without much thought.

But why are they so obsessed with this concept? Part of it is merely cultural. Most of the people writing the church-documents of the mainline denominations are aging hippies, who see Jesus as a Donovan roadie, going around affirming everyone with his peace and love against the mean, mean, buzz-killing Pharisees (symbols of conservative Christians and Republicans in their imaginations).

There's something else going on here though. What I suspect is that it is part of a larger cultural phenomenon of Epicureanism redvivus.

Let me explain. Epicureanism teaches that the goal of the ethical life is to get pleasure and fulfill our physical needs. This makes sense, because the world is just made up of atoms moving around and we have no soul that survives. The gods exist, but in another realm and they don't care about us. Later people tried to use this philosophy to endorse their indulgent behavior (particularly sexual), but Epicurus himself argued that one should simply try to drag down our needs to the lowest level possible so that they would be easy to fulfill. Also, this goes hand-in-hand with an obsession with the concept of "Peace." Peace is necessary to fulfill our most basic sensual needs. Also, all wars are pretty much pointless because there are no higher spiritual ideals to die for. Why mess things up for yourself? You can eat and have sex whether you live under Hitler or George Washington.

In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes revived this philosophy (as did Baruch Spinoza!) in order to bolster his argument in Leviathan. Having a tyranny, argued Hobbes, is better than having a war of "all against all." So, just keep your head down and obey the state authority no matter what (unless they tell you to kill yourself!).

One can of course also see the influence of Epicurus on Marx and Darwin as well. Both were materialists. Marx in particular believed that the fulfillment of human physical needs (i.e. economics) was the driving force of history. Religion or other spiritual realities were just super-structural masks for these forces. Darwin's grandfather oversaw the revival of Epicurean philosophy in Britain in the late 18th century! Logically speaking, evolution makes no sense unless you buy the idea of Epicurus that atoms can just fly together in a way that looks meaningful and intentional, but isn't (i.e., the whole universe).

Fast forward to the 60s and low and behold, you have a culture of young people who are strongly influenced by Marx and Darwin, who are obsessed with sensual self-indulgence and with the concept of peace. As we can see, the two are connected. Why worry about the soul-destroying nature of Communism, if there's no soul? Let's just do LSD, and sit around pretending to have read Heidegger in order to facilitate our next sexual encounter!

Well, you know the rest of the story. Many of these folks became mainline Protestant clergy, put out endless social statements, endorse a nuclear freeze in the 80s and state-run socialism and abortion, etc. Yada, Yada, Yada.

Again, this makes Nessan and other mainline Protestant clergy's obsession with "social justice" (i.e. spending more money on federal entitlements) make sense. Spiritual realities that the Church has always believed in don't really matter. Only the fulfillment of physical needs does, since implicitly, that's all we are!

The point is that not only does the Bible endorse violence as necessary this side of the eschaton, but because spiritual realities and ideals are more important than our physical self-indulgence, we should never endorse peace at all costs. Once we forget that God's truth and justice are more important than physical life, then we are really enslaved to those who can kill the "body but not the soul." This freedom of the gospel, is the recognition that because of Jesus' resurrection, our physical life in this world will only find consummation in the next. That makes us free to die for God's own truth. Christians are the most dangerous citizens of any tyranny!


  1. "Let's just do LSD, and sit around pretending to have read Heidegger in order to facilitate our next sexual encounter!"

    Wait...when you proposed marriage you claimed to have read Heidegger....is our union based on a lie?!

  2. "I continue the bear the cross of the Craig Nessan book just so that I can put it on my CV"

    Why not consider it a Lenten penitential act, Jack? But of course, then it can't go on your CV - "don't do your acts of righteousness in order to be seen by others" :0)

  3. My exposure to "social justice" theology was in my undergraduate years, but it wasn't directly from mainline Protestant sources. Most of the people who talked about "social justice" were members of InterVarsity and other non-denominational campus groups. "Social justice" involved mostly soup kitchen work, staged demonstrations to protest Darfur, and vague implications that the Kingdom would come through government programs and one ought to vote accordingly.

    To me it seemed more or less Marxist. I wonder whether anyone has traced the paths of these influences from what I would assume to be their mainline Protestant sources to their current American Evangelical homes.

  4. Home run! This would also be the reason why these folk deny sin and turn there nose up at grace. I wonder how one can call this church as all elements of Law and Gospel have been removed from the church, in their sense. This desire for all of this "Social Justice" is Word and Sacrament for these people. The desire for peace is also the reason they support homosexual unions as well. After all, we can't offend.


    I have a friend in American Evangelicalism who thinks much the same way as many socialists do and in many ways he has eliminated any sense of the majesty and supernaturalness of God out of his life. In many ways rather he exhibits an attitude of speculation of God rather than trusting in the Scriptures.

  5. "The point is that not only does the Bible endorse violence as necessary this side of the eschaton"

    The Bible certainly describes violence being done, but it appears to me that Scripture endorses the just use of force (including at times extreme amounts) as necessary rather than violence, which is the unjust use of force.