Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Church in Public and the Question of Violence

This being an election year the media is particularly sensitive to political controversies everywhere, especially those that might have some tie to the election. We've been treated several times this year to stories about marriage equality and the right, or lack thereof, of gay and lesbian couples to marry. Obama's long-championed healthcare legislation has also been under great scrutiny, with a major Supreme Court case and arguments about religious freedom and birth control just a few of the many threads in that discussion.

These are not the only issues, of course - poll after poll shows that jobs and the economy are the #1 issue on Americans' minds - but they are great media fodder, because the people who care about them tend to get very excited and say all sorts of fun things. They are red-meat issues to certain segments of the population, and excited people tend to spend more (directly or indirectly) in ways that benefit media outlets.

But my point today isn't about media behavior, most of which is pretty mundane and predictable. What sparked this post starts with an observation and ends with a question. The observation is this: in the public arena, on any issues of national prominence or policy, the only place that the church has been visible this year is on these hot-button issues like marriage and health care.

By "the church" in this case I mean not any particular denomination, but the bulk of organized Western Christianity. It is undoubtedly true that some denominations (Catholics, Baptists) have a greater ability to command attention in the media than others (who pays attention to Quakers?) But there are a great many denominations that can and do say things in public, and that usually get at least some attention for doing so. Those churches that have chosen to do so have poured a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy into speaking on a few issues related to health care and homosexuality.

One question might be, why aren't churches talking more about issues people care about - that is, jobs and the economy? While this is a tempting criticism, there's an obvious answer: churches aren't (or aren't supposed to be) running for office. They have no particular mandate to speak on election-related issues, or to conform their agendas to election-related polls. My guess is that most churches stay out of economic issues because they don't have a consensus understanding on them, and because their own members have a diversity of views. Theology provides no clear guide to whether we should bail out the auto industry or lower interest rates.

But there are other moral issues that churches are not addressing, and I very much wonder why. Despite differences on particular issues like abortion, all churches agree that issues of life and death are fundamental moral questions about which their various theologies have something to say. And over the last dozen years or so, pretty much all churches have been silent on one of the most consequential life-and-death questions of our time: war and the use of violent force.

There have certainly been plenty of opportunities to say something in this arena. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the recent political controversy over drone strikes and "targeted killings", even to questions of individual self-defense raised by battles over gun laws and the Trayvon Martin case - there has been no shortage of events to use as springboards for commentary on when violence is or is not acceptable. Yet churches have been silent.

Is this because theology has nothing to say about violence and the use of force? That cannot be - some denominations (not much noted, like the Amish) have made non-violence a central tenet of their faith, while in past decades Catholic church encyclicals on nuclear weapons and war played a significant role in policy debates. Certainly any church (and there are many) which takes a stand on the "sanctity of life" as a theological issue should care about the death of innocent civilians in war. Yet the churches with the loudest megaphones - which have often championed exactly those "sanctity of life" issues - have said nothing.

More likely, the reason is simple politics. Churches, like most organizations and groups, pick their battles on tactical grounds. In particular, churches have very, very rarely wanted to pick a fight with the State - churches that do tend to find themselves outlawed or thrown out of the country (why are there so many Amish in the US, but not in Switzerland where they were founded? Refusal to participate in the military defense of the country was considered treasonous.) "Controversial" issues like abortion, or health care, or gay marriage, are questions which do not challenge the fundamental core of State authority, and are therefore safe playgrounds on which to pontificate. It's easy to work up a high dudgeon in public over whether religious hospitals have to allow their employees access to birth control, because no one powerful is threatened.

This, of course, is a terrible shame (if not a terrible irony) for a movement that likes to think of itself as being transformational and "in but not of the world". In the broadest sense, it only confirms what churches will themselves (usually) admit - that they are human institutions, prone to the same sins and weaknesses as fallen humanity in general.

However regrettable on a grand scale, I find the churches' silence on questions of violence and the use of force personally frustrating. Violence in the US alone kills thousands more every year than al Qaeda ever has or will, and wars fought by the US military abroad have killed hundreds of thousands (mostly civilians) over the past decade or more. If I want to be a faithful Christian, how do I respond to these realities? What guidance does the church - any church - have in response to such questions?

In the face of ongoing silence, I will have to find my own answers while the religious leaders of the day entertain themselves on other, safer questions.

1 comment:

  1. Many Churches have a special interest group that focuses on issues of war and peace. In the Episcopal Church this the Episcopal Peace Fellowship which has a lobby in Washington. Locally, because of the divergent views of many parishioners, most clergy have learned to take great care in addressing these issues so as to keep people listening. This does not mean that they are not brought into the conversation. I don't know of any parishioner who condones violence except in self-defense and for the purposes of war. And I do know a number who are anti-war and anti-violence. But when a parishioner's son is fighting in a foolish war, it does little good to tell them that their son should not be there because Jesus does not support a violent life. Life is full of ambiguity and it is somewhere in the midst of the conversation about that ambiguity that we discover the power of love and transformation. Your mom