Monday, 12 June 2017

Some Thoughts on Resistance, Suffering and the Ways of the World from a Peace Church Perspective

This blog post was prompted by discussions taking place in my current webinar series on nonviolent understandings of the atonement.

Understandably, the strong division between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God and the emphasis on suffering as a way of overcoming evil in the Anabaptist and Quaker traditions is challenging and discomforting to many of us. In this blog post, I offer a few reflections on these matters.

1. We all face choices when it comes to matters of conscience.

When we encounter issues prompted by our conscience and our convictions, we are faced with a fundamental choice; how far are we prepared to go in being true to our convictions? This is at the very heart of the issue of suffering and persecution. It is a matter of discernment and witness both for individuals and for communities who are committed to following the way of Jesus.

2. A few basic options

When we are faced with an issue that challenges our conscience and convictions, in terms of our response, we have a few basic options:

  • Avoidance - We can choose to avoid the issue or run away from the impending conflict/confrontation.
  • Conformity - we can choose to conform to what the wider society/the powers require of us rather than stand by our conscience and convictions.
  • Physical Force - we can choose to fight physically against the powers/people/ideology we oppose.
  • Nonviolent Resistance - we can choose to resist the powers/people/ideology we oppose using nonviolent means.

From a peace church perspective, steadfastly upholding one's convictions and the promptings of one's conscience through nonviolent resistance, represents the true way of Jesus.

3. How far are we prepared to go?

We all have to decide how far we are prepared to go in resisting something that is contrary to our conscience and convictions. In making such a decision, we will inevitably reflect upon the implications of our actions. An uncompromising position may well produce very costly implications (e.g. we may become a figure of fun or be despised by people, we may face criminal proceedings and imprisonment, ultimately, we may face losing our lives). In this sense, suffering, of whatever type or severity, can be seen as an essential aspect of being true to ourselves and what guides and inspire us.

4. Is 'the world' fundamentally good or evil?

When we talk about 'the world' we are not talking about the physical creation but rather about human culture, systems, institutions and ideologies that shape how society functions. Some aspects of 'the world' might be regarded as positive or benign (e.g. ideas of human rights, and the collective provision of health and education services), others might be regarded as negative or evil (e.g. exploitative economic systems, discriminatory social systems, violent political and military systems). What we regard as positive/benign or negative/evil is a matter of discernment. However, it is also a function of our relationship to 'the world'. If we are Western European, white, male, middle class, able-bodied, straight and cis-gendered our experience means that we are more likely to perceive 'the world' as positive and benign. If we are non-Western European, black, female, working class, disabled, and LGBT+ our experience means that we are more likely to perceive 'the world' as negative and evil. So different positions of power and privilege will produce different perceptions of the nature and character of 'the world'. If we experience life on the powerful/privileged end of the spectrum, we may be largley oblivious of the negative dimensions of the world, as these are outside of our actual experience.

5. Opposing and resisting the ways of 'the world'

Opposing and resisting the dominant ways of the world can be a risky business. When one kicks against the way things are, there can be all sorts of negative implications (from mild discomfort right through to the loss of one's life). Suffering, therefore, is an unavoidable issue. We will have to confront it if we are committed to following our conscience and convictions in a world that is a mix of positive/benign and negative/evil characteristics. This is particularly so if we are at the powerless/oppressed end of the spectrum or committed to being an ally of the powerless and oppressed.

6. Suffering, oppression and the issue of violence

If we wish to oppose and resist the negative/evil aspect of the world, we need to discern how this should be done. Do we adopt a steadfastly nonviolent approach or do we accept that, in some circumstances (e.g. the liberation of the poor and oppressed) some use of violence and physical force is legitimate? This is the point at which there is a clear tension between a peace church perspective (which tends to reject the use of violence in any circumstances) and a liberational perspective (which may advocate the use of violence and physical force in some circumstances). 

7. Following the Way of the Lamb

In all of this we need to ask ourselves searching questions about the nature of the way of Jesus. If we are committed to being disciples of Jesus; following after Jesus and walking the way of Jesus, how does this affect our approach to the role of suffering, nonviolent resistance and the use of physical force as methods of resisting and overcoming evil? How do we view the ways of 'the world' from a Jesus perspective? We are all part of 'the world' and have a responsibility to play our part in shaping how it develops and changes. In reality, there is no opting out (e.g. avoidance is never really avoidance. It is simply an acceptance of the status quo). We are forced to continually choose between the practices of avoidance, conformity, physical force and nonviolent resistance and in doing this we need to be aware of our position within the power structures of the world. If we are privileged in terms of power, might this make us more likely to opt for avoidance and conformity rather than resistance and the suffering that this can bring?

Collectively, the followers of Jesus are called to offer a visible public witness to a new way of being human, to a new creation. The way of nonviolent resistance and suffering love is the way of the Lamb's War. Our lives now should be a vision of shalom, a foretaste of the way the whole world will be in the end. This end is not physical destruction, but rather all things in right relationship, heaven and earth as one. To follow the way of the Lamb in this journey will require active resistance (because the evil of violence, hatred and oppression still holds sway) and may involve suffering (as the alternative to perpetuating evil), but we have received a promised that the ultimate destination will be worth it.

4 comments:

  1. It seems that missed here is what historically has been the prime response and remains key - living a life of positive faithfulness which serves as an example of a different way.

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  2. Dear Bill, yes agreed. I suppose that's a danger of sharing something here prompted by a conversation that is happening elsewhere. It is implicit in the priority given to following the way of Jesus. It has been explicit in the webinar discussions. This week, among other things, we will be engaging with Michael J Gorman's book 'The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not-So)New Model of Atonement (2014, James Clarke & Co)in which Gorman argues that very point. He calls himself an Anabaptist Methodist. Shalom, Stuart.

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  3. A basic option you shouldn't neglect is that of pragmatically working for incremental improvements. For example, in 1916 the Quaker MP Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) succeeded in getting a (conditional) exemption from conscription for conscientious objectors. Harvey's winning recognition of the rights of conscience was a great achievement, and one that is still with us today.

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  4. I agree Mark. Resistance by individuals and groups can achieve some positive change within social systems and institutions. Harvey and other COs did this, often at great cost and suffering. The system, however, remained essentially violent despite this. I believe that, overall, much has improved over the centuries. However, within the context of enormous economic, technical and military power, the stakes are far higher than ever before. Do we follow the way of Jesus (nonviolence, compassion and justice) or the way of division, hatred, violence and injustice? In my view, the former is the only hope of species survival. The latter will lead to our destruction, taking most other species with us. Shalom, Stuart.

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