Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Double Strategy

In various forms over the past few months -- an inauguration speech, an essay, and a book -- I have come across what seems to me a very peculiar ethical position.

The position is what John Milbank -- the author of the online article -- calls a "double strategy". One aspect of the strategy is the sacrificial, peaceable way which refuses to fight evil with evil. The other aspect is the way of "power", which here means some justifiable form of violence. According to this logic, we need both ways working together to achieve the goal of peace. Milbank illustrates this strategy by point to The Lord of the Rings. While the anabaptist Frodo is making his sacrificial way to Mordor to break the spell of evil the constantinian Gandalf is rounding up the troops and leading them into battle.

Barak Obama espoused the same logic in January. He commended the witness of Martin Luther King, but equally commended the brave soldiers who use force to defend and promote American values. We need both, was Obama's message. There is probably some Zizekian psychoanalytic theory that can explain this.

John Stackhouse's book Making the Best of It also embraces this contradictory ethic. He admires Yoder's "pure" position and is in little doubt that he and others like him are doing God's will. But, Stackhouse warns, this is not a position that everyone should take. We need the majority of Christians to join with Gandalf lest we end up being wiped out. This fear of being extinguished and the need for violence to protect Christian existence is also expressed by Milbank:

For the survival of Christianity was enabled by acts of military defiance and its survival otherwise would have been either marginal or non-existent...

Perhaps I have simply read too much Yoder for my own good, but this is surely a wrong approach to Christian identity. When Christianity's life depends on military defiance, one must  ask what kind of Christianity this is and if it merits survival.

What about survival by a non-military form? For Milbank that could only have meant Christianity being marginal or being wiped out entirely. He seems to assume that these are obviously undesirable outcomes, but I beg to differ. A Christianity that is marginal makes reading and applying the New Testament a whole lot more intelligible for starters. The marginality of the church is not an unfortunate situation but a theological fact and a situation of wonderful ethical potentiality. 

And what about a non-existent Christianity? If Christianity has reached a point where the best idea it can come up with is to kill its enemies then, by New Testament standards, this is a Christianity worthy of extinction. Would that the Christianity that picks up the sword be put to death so that we may not trust in human power and wisdom for its survival but in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that have ceased to exist.


  1. "For the survival of Christianity was enabled by acts of military defiance and its survival otherwise would have been either marginal or non-existent..."

    Surely the survival of the church was enabled by God and the church and its fate remains in His hands.

  2. Unless we're both missing something, you are spot on. A basic theological point seemingly ignored by Milbank.

    To say that the body of Christ is enabled to live by military defiance is about as untrue as sentences get.