Pacifism and the Good Samaritan

Jeremy Pierce and I have been having a long discussion in the comment thread on my post Doug ridicules Christian pacifism. Here I want to bring out one issue which came up in his most recent comment. In an earlier comment he had written:

It’s simply a moral principle that we should protect others

and I had replied:

This is where I fundamentally differ from you, especially if in doing so we kill or wound a third party. I’m not saying it is always wrong to do so either, but there is no sense in which this is a moral imperative for all, where the others have not been specifically entrusted to our care. To go beyond this is to be a “meddler” [referring to an earlier discussion of 1 Peter 4:15], as so well defined by you as “an enforcer of morality in places where you have no authority to do so”. So, yes, protect your own children, and play the hero when you see a mugging if you like (but don’t deliberately shoot the mugger dead), but it is not your responsibility to protect the children of Iraq.

To this Jeremy responded:

I have very strong resistance to the claim that I have no responsibility to treat the people of Iraq as my neighbors. Just because they don’t live next to you doesn’t mean they don’t count as neighbors in the sense that Jesus had in mind in the Good Samaritan parable. He deliberately chose a case of a foreigner helping an Israelite, indeed a foreigner most Israelites wouldn’t have seen any responsibility toward.

But does the parable of the Good Samaritan imply that as a Christian I should abandon pacifism and support armed intervention in Iraq? I don’t think so.Yes, the people of Iraq are my neighbours. But I note one important point here: in the parable, the Good Samaritan did not intervene by force in any way.

Jesus could have told the parable such that the Samaritan comes across the traveller while he is being beaten up, intervenes and kills the robbers, or at least drives them off by force, and then deals with the victim.

But Jesus chose not to tell this alternative version of the story. And it is clear why. For it would go right against his teaching not to resist an evil person (Matthew 5:39). Indeed there is nothing anywhere in Jesus’ teaching to suggest that the duty to love one’s neighbour implies a duty, or even a right, to intervene with force against any third party. The reason for this should be obvious: the third party is also one’s neighbour, and the Christian duty to love includes loving one’s enemies. I suppose a casuist or a philosopher might argue that we should love our own enemies but Jesus doesn’t actually tell us to love other people’s enemies, but it should be obvious that Jesus meant that we should love everyone. And how can loving someone be consistent with using violence against them?

Now I would not take this principle so far as to teach that it is wrong to physically restrain someone from attacking someone else. I’m not sure that there is a Christian duty to do so, but this is not wrong in itself. However, such restraint must always be with much less than lethal force, for otherwise one is putting oneself on the same level as the attacker.

So, let us indeed remember the parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches our duty to love everyone, even those of a despised foreign nation. So we should love all Iraqis, and not just those who we consider innocent victims. But, just as the Good Samaritan brought no violence but only healing and restoration, so should our intervention, personal or national, be non-violent but healing and restorative.

0 thoughts on “Pacifism and the Good Samaritan

  1. I didn’t intend to suggest that the Good Samaritan parable shows that we should intervene with force. The Good Samaritan parable establishes who is our neighbor. If you put that together with the principle that we should defend our neighbor when their life is at stake, then you get a justification for those with great power also have great responsibility when it comes to defense against oppressors. You need that extra premise to get my conclusion, but it’s a premise that I think Romans 13 gives us.

  2. Jeremy, I’m confused by your “principle that we should defend our neighbor when their life is at stake”. You claim to find it in Romans 13. Do you mean verse 4 in context? It is clearly one of the tasks of government to defend people by punishing wrongdoers. That does not imply that it is the duty of individual Christians to do so, in fact rather the opposite.

    Of course this does not answer the question of what governments which claim to be Christian should do, as the New Testament does not address this situation. However, it does seem clear from this passage and Acts 17:26 that God gave to each government the authority to govern, including punishing wrongdoers, within a certain territory, and not over the whole earth.

    In fact Romans 13:10, “Love does no harm to its neighbour”, proves my point that Christians should not use force against anyone, remembering that the aggressor is also our neighbour.

  3. Regarding the statement, “I have very strong resistance to the claim that I have no responsibility to treat the people of Iraq as my neighbors”

    I guess I wonder what the implications of this are in a more consistent way: What about my neighbors in Zimbabwe, for example?

    Why are we so concerned with our responsibility to intervene on behalf of our neighbors in the Middle East rather than those in, say, Africa? Not just today, but consistently so. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about what happens in Kuwait or Iraq and so forth. It’s just that when that responsibility defined in those terms becomes the justification for interventions on behalf of the people there, the “eyes turned away” response to places like Liberia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Sudan, to name a few from my lifetime, seems shocking.

    I’m not sure where I stand on all the implications of responsibility for our neighbors on a larger “the world is my neighborhood” scale. What IS my responsibility? What is my country’s responsibility? I have more questions than answers.

    But I do think using the “responsibility for our neighbors” justification for armed intervention falls short when it seems to apply primarily to the neighbors who live in places which are highly relevant to our economic interests.

  4. Thanks, Eclexia. I agree with you. Of course Jeremy might claim we have an equal responsibility to intervene in Zimbabwe. I would agree that the international community needs to take stronger action in that case, but not armed intervention which in that case will merely strengthen Mugabe’s prejudice that his country’s problems all stem from western meddling.

  5. So, the Christian response to Iraq is to send food, medicine, doctors, missionaries, teachers, nurses, construction teams, and any other supplies and people we can to comfort, heal, and assist the oppressed and injured.

    How do Christians work for peace and reconciliation in Iraq?

  6. Indeed, John. But the Christian response now may be different from what it should have been when Saddam Hussein was in charge.

    Any ideas on the last question? The answer must include distancing themselves from the failed US and UK military intervention policy.

  7. Peter, the principle I derive from Romans 13 is that it’s not immoral in principle to defend someone’s life even if it is immoral to defend one’s own for the sake of oneself (as I think we should be able to derive from the Sermon on the Mount). There is a question about whether an individual should apply this principle the way a government should. In terms of war, that question is irrelevant. In terms of personal life, it’s very important.

    My argument was that if the principle of defending life is important in a way that it grounds governmental violence, then there’s at least a prima facie allowance of personal violence to defend others given that the only thing prohibited in the Sermon on the Mount and other places that support personal pacifism. There are often non-violent ways to end violence. The probably non-canonical account in John 8 is one such way, but it was performed by someone who is divine, who knew how people would respond to him. The allowance and even command of violence throughout the Bible to serve moral purposes suggests to me that we shouldn’t restrict it any more than the moral principles we can clearly derive from the scriptures would lead, and the only ones I see in the direction of pacifism are not standing up for your own rights when it’s you who are the issue.

    So I would say it’s wrong to stand up against someone who steals my son’s toy in the doctor’s office if it’s my family pride or the expense of the toy that’s grounding it, and with a normally-developed, mature child I might convince the child to adopt the attitude of giving up rights to the toy. But it isn’t wrong if I know it will be an issue of sending an autistic child over the edge emotionally for hours or days, and it isn’t wrong if what was stolen is medicine required for health or life.

    The issue in the Sermon on the Mount is when we should be willing to stand up for what we believe to be our rights, and I think the same principles apply to when we should use violence (although there is admittedly a much stronger presumption against using violence if other methods can resolve a situation).

    There is an issue with legitimate authority. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was under the authority of the UN, and members of the UN Security Council had demonstrated their corruption and unwillingness to enforce their own ruling over this government that had voluntarily submitted to their authority. Some members of the UN were pushing for the enforcement of that agreement. Given the national security issues at stake and the benevolent aid issues at stake, refusing to enforce your own ruling merely because you don’t want to lose your financial dealings with the country in question counts as serious corruption. Some of versions of just war theory allow for the legitimate authority plank to be satisfied in such cases when the next level of authority steps in to overrule the corrupt higher level, and it’s at least plausible that the leaders of the other UN Security Council nations could count as that next level. That’s Tony Blair’s official response to this problem, anyway, and I find it plausible.

    There are serious issues about how to sort through options when there are too many places to be able to offer aid to a neighbor. This is so whether you consider the use of violence or not. It’s just more difficult if one of the options is using force to intercede, because that just brings in far more options that are harder to sort through. Some of the issues involved would include:

    (1) Is it reasonable to expect you’ll be more successful in one case as opposed to another?
    (2) Which needs are greatest (in terms of the needs of those you’re immediately helping)?
    (3) Whose other needs will be affected, and can it aid the well-being of other people in the process? [This is where I think it’s perfectly fine for considerations about oil to enter into the discussion. It’s also relevant to consider national security issues here, although I think that can also serve as an independent justification as national self-defense, which I don’t think interferes with the Christian view prohibiting personal self-defense for its own sake.]
    (4) How much effort should you expect to be involved, how many resources should you expect to be expended, and what should you expect the situation to look like when you’re done?
    (5) What should you expect the effects will be on other countries, and how should you expect it to affect relations between that country and those engaging in this operation in the future?

    Now I’m very glad I don’t have to think about such things. I think I’m pretty good at figuring out all these considerations and listing them all, but I’m a lot worse at moving to an evaluation of all of them together in a particular case, especially when there are a lot of unknowns and unknown unknowns (things you don’t know are wrong about).

    I can see how in 2003, given the intelligence almost everyone accepted at the time, people might have been willing to think Iraq satisfied these criteria better than other situations at the time. I’ve tried to give the benefit of the doubt to those who were facing that choice, and I’ve always said that I don’t know what I would have decided if I’d had access to the intelligence reports they had and had been forced to make a decision.

    I certainly think the situation that’s been created there by the invasion justifies remaining there and doing what we can do rectify things rather than sending the troops off to somewhere where the problem isn’t of our own creation. That’s a moral factor that’s now present in Iraq that isn’t present in Zimbabwe, Liberia, Rwanda, or the Sudan (or at the very least not to the same degree). There may be other issues as well.

  8. Jeremy, I can’t respond to this in detail. But I agree with your principle of saving life and conclude that it can never be right to take any one person’s life in order to save that of another person. Perhaps laying down one’s own life voluntarily is a different matter.

    Let me grant for the sake of argument that the authorities responsible for Iraq were corrupt and thoroughly evil. So was the Roman empire under Nero. Read Romans 13:1-2 and see what the Christian’s attitude should be to those corrupt authorities. And of course the US and UK governments were completely innocent of financial interest in what was happening in Iraq, were they?

    But I do accept that it is all too easy to criticise in retrospect, although my own position has been consistently against the invasion of Iraq since before it took place, because I was never convinced that there really were WMDs. As for what to do now, I accept that the invaders have a duty to make the best of the situation as it is rather than simply pull out and wash their hands, but I also sincerely believe that the way to make the best of the situation is to pull out as quickly as reasonably possible.

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