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    Letters from Readers

    May 25, 2021
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    This Forum features selected responses to Plough’s Spring 2021 issue, “The Violence of Love.” The Forum is a place for commissioned responses by other writers to the questions raised by our authors, and for letters from you, our readers. Send contributions to letters@plough.com, with your name and town or city. Contributions may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium.

    Alternative to War

    On Scott Button’s “A Life That Answers War”: Reading this article as an Israeli brings to my mind two main questions: What is the price one is willing to pay for one’s convictions? How is national interest defined?

    Conscientious objection is not recognized in Israel. My father, who fought as a soldier in three wars, eventually refused to serve in a detention facility where humiliation of Palestinian detainees was common. Two of my brothers also refused to serve; all three spent time in prison. But there may be an even higher price for soldiers sent to control Palestinian civil populations or protect Israeli settlers in the occupied territories. A young Israeli told me the experience that most torments him from his army service is going into a Palestinian home in the middle of the night and having to watch over the wife and several children with his gun pointed at them. If more choose to see the humanity of the Palestinians and refuse to serve the military occupation that oppresses them, our common interests will be much better defended.

    Zohar Regev, Bethlehem, Palestine

    Button’s story of the Bruderhof and its cultivation of a different vision of conscientious objection is important because it offers an important critique of how we resist war. Legal protections for conscientious objection moved during the twentieth century from those who were a part of a pacifist tradition to include individuals who object to war.

    The Bruderhof vision preserves the notion that we are shaped as moral beings by our communities, and that our communities sustain us. Button’s article shows that the American story of conscientious objection is the American story of war: moral actions governed by fragments of individual intuition, gut feelings, and appeals to political necessity. It is an American story in desperate need of an alternative.

    To truly offer an alternative to war, we must begin not simply by emphasizing moral ideals like the Sermon on the Mount, but by being part of communities which help us to display, embody, and argue together about what those moral ideals might look like on the ground. In this, the alternative service of the objector is the extension of an alternative which has life even when the war ceases.

    Myles Werntz, Abilene, Texas

    protesters in Portland, OR

    Protesters take cover during an assault on the Portland federal courthouse, July 2020. Photograph by Alex Milan Tracy, Sipa USA/Alamy Live News

    Defining Violence

    On Patrick Tomassi’s “Behind the Black Umbrellas”: I want to commend Mr. Tomassi on an excellent, even-handed article. I also want to state my position. I have spent years as a survivalist, a liberal, a Democrat, an Evangelical, and a poor person. I have known peace activists, Nazis, and Klansmen. Today I am an upper-middle-class older White guy who goes to a Roman Catholic church and identifies politically as a Christian Anarchist. I work as a street medic and care provider at BLM and antifa-led rallies and I have faced Proud Boys and their ilk in Washington, DC, prior to January 6. I am (striving to be) nonviolent.

    I define violence as the intentional infliction of damage or prolonged pain on another person. Threat, coercion, violent speech are all serious matters, but do not threaten bodily integrity. Property damage is often counterproductive, ineffective or criminal, but not a threat to the person. Both sides use elastic definitions of words like violence and self-defense to justify themselves and demonize the other. That is why one of the key things we as Christians should try to do is define our words clearly and speak carefully.

    While I have been to many antifa/BLM rallies, the only ones where I have seen violence occur were when Proud Boy, et al. counter-protesters showed up. I have seen many protesters carrying shields and umbrellas, but almost never anything I would term a weapon. Every time I have encountered Rightist protesters I have feared for my own safety. These are not equivalent groups.

    At the same time, I must say that I am frequently disappointed with the refusal of self-analysis among BLM/antifa actors. I do not question the emotions that drive them, but I often wish that it did not evolve into a rejection of reason and a “race to the edge” to see who can express the most shocking “radical” opinion. Violence is a human problem, and will only be ended by changing human hearts. Antifa and BLM are at least actively committed to building loving, supportive, abundant (albeit secular) communities. I am not aware of any such efforts on the Right.

    Brian Dolge, Catonsville, Maryland

    Thank you for coordinating a diverse view in your issue from within the framework of Christian nonviolence. The violence-vs-nonviolence axis for understanding current events was acknowledged more frequently when the fault lines of cultural and political identity were more heavily aligned with foreign policy and antiwar activism. As our conflicts move onto more ambiguous battlefields – the “verbal violence” of memetic warfare in virtual space, the attempts to “cancel” or “doxx” public figures over controversies, the provocations of late-night protesters in improvised riot gear – it becomes harder to understand their boundaries.

    The focus on intent and outcome seems to swallow up all procedural definitions, creating malleable cases along the edge. Patrick Tomassi’s article, while not exactly sympathetic to the Antifa and Proud Boy activists it profiles, makes clear that they are entirely sincere in seeing themselves as opponents of the True Violence (of corrupt systems, of false narrative, of entrenched power) despite the fact that they superficially appear to be the ones carrying truncheons and spoiling for a fight. In their own way, these militants are more scrupulous about definitions than the much larger internet world of armchair activists. They seem willing to narrowly define their enemies and honestly confront them in a way that acknowledges a difference in kind between a physical threat and the abstract “harm” of heated disagreement.

    At the same time, the problem of how to understand violence in virtual spaces, and how it overlaps with the real physical violence it occasionally inspires, remains mostly unresolved. The Sermon on the Mount instructs that calling a man a “fool” is akin to murder, and that seems to be relevant in an era where every act of real violence seems to rest on the tip of an iceberg of a thousand angry words. Indeed, the sharp delineation of the boundary between physical and verbal violence feels constantly gamed and exploited by the sort of activists described by Tomassi, who relentlessly goad their opponents with mocking chants and jeers into striking the first blow. While few of us are literal participants, this strategy of provoking our enemies is a far more ubiquitous pattern of sin, easily seen in the temptation to win debates by tempting ideological adversaries to lose composure and escalate rhetoric. In the same way that a culture of pornography and the instrumentalization of sexual behavior has complicated the Christian obligation to avoid sins of lust, the engagement-maximizing design of social media has created an environment that requires heroic virtue to resist wrath. Perhaps we need to look harder at our complicity in creating and sustaining the malign aspects of that environment.

    Edward Hamilton, Longview, Texas

    You could be reading this in print. New Plough Quarterly subscribers get the first issue free. Sign up here.

    Pillars

    On Rachel Pieh Jones’s “Call to Prayer, Call to Bread”: I co-direct a national organization, Neighborly Faith, dedicated to forging bonds between evangelical Christians and Muslims in America. When I first heard about Rachel Pieh Jones’s book Pillars, I was skeptical: If our Muslim friends can “lead us closer to Jesus,” as the cover states, does this mean the Christian faith is deficient in some way without their contribution?

    This excerpt from Pillars helped me to better understand Jones’s approach. At Neighborly Faith, we’ve seen curiosity and honesty make relationships possible across deep religious differences, and I think Jones strikes that balance here. The genuine and gracious tone that Jones applies to her Muslim neighbors makes me excited to dig deeper into Pillars and introduce our network to her book.

    Kevin Singer, Raleigh, North Carolina

    illustration of a knight attacking a dragon with a spear

    No Passive Peace

    On Eberhard Arnold’s “Beyond Pacifism”: Arnold’s commitment to the Sermon on the Mount pervades his whole theological outlook and generates a rich vision, addressing us from a time when Christian intellectuals, especially in Europe, were familiar with the work of Karl Marx and the plethora of socialist movements gaining traction across the globe. Arnold’s theological criticisms of capitalism are as relevant as ever.

    With the unyielding character of Arnold’s nonviolent theology, however, there is a danger that we Christians – especially those who don’t directly experience violence themselves – become detached from the realities of the oppressed. Writing in the 1920s and 30s, Arnold declares, “We must speak up in protest against every instance of bloodshed and violence, no matter what its origin.” But what of counterexamples such as the later Jewish uprisings in the ghettoes and concentration camps of Europe, in which the oppressed asserted their humanity against those who would have it annihilated?

    Cameron Coombe, Dunedin, New Zealand

    Here in Ethiopia, violence is the order of the day, and it is very common to hear of the killing of innocent people because of their ethnicity or religion, or for no clear reason at all. Some who call themselves freedom fighters have taken the law into their own hands, while the government seeks an end to violence, but not true peace. Pray for us! Suggest a solution!

    Nonviolence or the absence of war does not represent peace. Peace is only perfect when it is eternal. Such peace is achieved only through love of God. In Jesus, we have reconciliation with others, live at peace with them (Colossians 1:19-20), have fellowship with one another through mutual forgiveness (1 John 1:9), and can live with others in unity through the bonds of peace (Ephesians 4:3). He empowers us by His Spirit to be peacemakers with our neighbors, friends, and foes.

    Birhanu Fanthun, Hawssa, Ethiopia

    It is startling to find that Eberhard Arnold and Dorothy Day used the same words to describe our capitalist system: filthy, rotten. Both pointed to community as the solution: Eberhard Arnold held to complete community of goods, and the Bruderhof movement he founded has kept that rule. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker never aspired to that degree of community of goods. In our more modest moments we refer to “simplicity.”

    It is well to take a brief look at the social teaching of the Catholic Church, for Dorothy Day and other Catholic Workers have never conceived of themselves as anything other than faithful, if sometimes angry, sons and daughters of the Church. The basis of this teaching is Pope Leo XIII’s 1892 encyclical Rerum novarum, which broke with powerful pressures within the Church by asserting workers’ right to organize for collective bargaining and to strike. Thirty years later, in 1931, Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo anno, a more explicit indictment of capitalism. While the Church recognizes the right to private property as a guarantor of liberty, that right is not absolute, and must be subordinated to the universal common good.

    Historically the Catholic Worker movement has looked to the English Distributists – especially G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Eric Gill, and Vincent McNabb, O.P. – for language to speak about these things. The problem with capitalism, they taught, was that it doesn’t get enough capital to enough people – money and power have a tendency to climb upward. That is why mechanisms should be built into society that will help “horizontalize” power.

    Tom Cornell, Marlboro, New York

    In addressing the passivism of Tolstoy’s Jesus, Arnold raises an important basic point: it is possible to misunderstand Jesus by taking his commands out of their larger context and not interpreting them with the whole of what God wills. From a magisterial Protestant point of view, this is unfortunately a problem that Arnold himself falls into.

    Jesus’ life was that of a private citizen with a specific and unique calling from God. While he is to be imitated in his character and the ways he commanded us to imitate him, he did not require us to have the same kind of life. That he did not marry does not mean his followers could not, and that he as a private citizen did not use violence does not mean Christians who are public officers may not.

    Jesus’ commands, which Arnold summarizes variously as love, justice, and peace, must be seen from a more comprehensive vantage point. Love, as desire for good, is the general principle of Christian living, but its application in context is more complicated than Arnold allows. Paul, who commended love as did his Lord, threatens the Corinthians that he will come “with a rod” if they do not repent. Anger is produced by injustice, and is sometimes the right thing for Christians to feel, but not always compatible with the gentleness and kindness that are the more “natural” fruits of love. In some cases, arguably, Christians can engage in justified deception; in other cases, they may make a vow or take an oath for the sake of the peace and security of others.

    Arnold focuses on God’s revealed will for Christians qua Christians, and God’s invisible rule in their souls through grace; he misses that God also rules through magistrates, sometimes through ecclesiastical judicial acts on the part of the visible church, and sometimes even through Christians with offices like that of magistrate, which come with exceptional divinely given obligations and permissions. Christians in such cases will still follow the basic principle of love for God, but while love is incompatible with malice towards others, it is not incompatible with causing them pain when necessary, though that necessary act will be attended with sorrow.

    It would probably be a distortion to only spotlight disagreements with Arnold. And so magisterial Protestants must also say what needs to be said in his favor: he is to be commended in his zeal for justice, peace, love, and human flourishing. It seems to this writer beyond doubt that the individual lives of some Christians in the pacifist tradition (even if they might disclaim that label like Arnold did) are some of the most exemplary of Jesus’ living Spirit on earth. If the world needs anything, it needs more of Jesus.

    Andrew Fulford, Montreal, Quebec

    The White Rose

    On Andrea Gross Ciponte’s “Freiheit!”: Stories of martyrs require care. We might valorize suffering, or try to become famous through persecution, rather than making true sacrifice for the good, including through hidden faithfulness. We might avoid the testimony of the martyrs altogether, turning aside from their discomforting questions about complacency towards God and casual disregard of our neighbor. Andrew Grosso Ciponte’s Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel handles the stories of Hans and Sophie Scholl and the anti-Nazi resistance movement “The White Rose” with both care and verve. I warmly commend the book.

    However, I do wonder if readers forming their first impression from Freiheit will understand how their Christian faith informed their activities. An excellent companion piece to Freiheit might be At the Heart of the White Rose, also published by Plough, which contains key letters and diary entries from Hans and Sophie Scholl. Readers of Freiheit might profit from the tender and searing honesty of Sophie’s prayers: “My soul is like an arid waste when I try to pray to you, conscious of nothing but its own barrenness. My God, transform that ground into good soil so that your seed doesn’t fall on it in vain.”

    Alongside its beautiful illustrations and storytelling, Freiheit helpfully includes the full text of all six White Rose leaflets, which appealed on theological grounds to Germans to recognize and resist the evils of fascism and the mistreatment of vulnerable human beings; their words leap off the page: “we will not be silent … we are your bad conscience, the White Rose will not leave you in peace!”

    Joshua Heavin, Dallas, Texas

    Farmers and Farm Stands

    On Maureen Swinger’s “Turning a Corner”: Maureen Swinger wrote a beautiful piece about the Coleman Corners Farm Stand. Growing up in Dutchess County, I worked on dairy farms in high school. Her tale of growing and doing and selling and meeting sounds idyllic, but it also rings with a truth I remember. I love farm stands. Bloggers and food writers tell us they are trendy and a virtuous way to obtain food, better than an impersonal grocery store. But I love them because farms are run by people. I can ask them about planting seasons, dry spells, the date of a late frost, and they come back with details that help me see how the growing season will unfold. I like farmers as much as farm stands. In ’95, on Long Island, Rottkamp Farm was down a long dusty road. You needed to know how to get there. But Madam Rottkamp was big and authoritative and opinionated. If you came for the tomatoes, you get wisdom too. My wife was pregnant with our first child; Madam Rottkamp prescribed Swiss chard and penciled a soup recipe on the brown paper bag: goodness on the inside and the outside. We went back regularly during a long, warm fall that stretched until October. We had corn on the cob for my mother-in-law’s birthday on October 24th. We went back a few years later and Madam cited the exact day of the killing frost that year. That is not food. It is life.

    Griff Neighbors, Madison, Connecticut

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