Reading Brian Zahnd’s Twitter feed is deeply illuminating. Here is a pastor who seems perceptive, biblically literate, nuanced, and caring and who seems to completely and totally sidestep the question of politics. Interspersed between quotes from David Bentley Hart’s complete caricature of Reformed theology as some sort of perverse sadism—a trope as old as the Reformation—he denounces American empire and talks about going to ZZ Top concerts. That’s all well and good. But what do our pacifist and non-violent brothers and sisters propose for protecting the lives of Americans from the near-constant threat of foreign attacks? What is the role of America as the only power capable of pushing back against the Chinas and Russias of the world? Hint: Diplomacy will not be enough.
I hear a near-endless series of criticisms from the Zahnds, Harts and Stanley Hauerwases of the world. But they feel little need or sense of obligation to provide a practical account of politics that is responsible and concerned for more than just their own personal faithfulness or the failures of America. What happens when the next Rwandan genocide is brewing on the horizon? I don’t see any real policy proposals of how they would respond.
Leaving aside the moral objections that our suffering is not enough to protect innocent people from evil actors who wish to do them harm, what do they propose practically that we do to address the question of North Korea’s nuclear program? What about a newly aggressive Russia? What proposals do they have for pushing back against Vladimir Putin’s designs to weaken the influence of Western democracies? Have they thought at all about what sorts of policies they would advocate for to challenge the Islamic Republic of Iran as it foments chaos and funnels resources to proxies to further destabilize the already destabilized Middle East? What about Syria? If intervention of some sort would have potentially weakened a malevolent dictator who has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and allowed opposition forces to gain the upper hand, what would they propose in response? Obama decided to sit out Syria, but the result was hundreds of thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for nonintervention. If they are willing to go the suffering route, are they prepared to let hundreds of thousands of people suffer for their convictions? That is, they refuse to use the means they possess to stop the bad guys because it would morally compromise them.
What about terrorism? It’s mainly because of “American Empire” they tell us, but that is a dodge. No serious terrorism expert would say America is wholly responsible for the global jihadist movement or that “American Empire” is the cause of the rise of terrorism in the past decades. The crusades as the cause of Muslim anger toward the West is a modern creation and does not have historical roots beyond the twentieth century. There is, however, a very immediate problem that many people in the world would like to fly airplanes into buildings or detonate bombs in major urban areas in America. What do our friends propose to address this issue, besides denouncing America? Do we stop these people? If so, how do we? Or do we just let them ravage America, as no doubt they would if our military and national security apparatus were not tirelessly thwarting their activities and designs?
Pacifism still has a strong hold on the imagination of many within the academy and within the Christian world. This is not the case among people who deal in international politics and security. There is no talk of pacifism. Neither are pacifist roots strong outside the West. Pacifism tends to be the purview of a small segment of well-educated Western academics and pastors.
The questions above are not meant to merely provoke or criticize, but to honestly ask what sorts of actual policies pacifists would implement that would keep people safe and promote peace in a violent and volatile world. My hunch is that most will dodge, or at least that is my experience. The recent response by these folks to the so-called rise of nationalism is par for the course: denounce, make general theological assertions, offer nothing helpful or practical.
My other hunch is that if pacifists and other fellow travelers spent more time talking with people who deal in international politics and security, they might be less inclined toward the vague and ill-defined responses they offer to address these complicated and fraught challenges that our military and security professionals face.
The peace and prosperity that these academics and pastors enjoy is the due, to paraphrase Orwell, to the fact that men with guns stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us. If they have such strong moral objections to this fact, I think they owe us some practical solutions.