Tuesday, August 30, 2011

So John Howard Yoder, Gene Sharp, and Bashar al-Assad walk into a bar...

From Harrisonburg, VA
...and they all order "Peace."
(Or the boring title: "Christological-theopolitical pacifism and strategic nonviolence in conversation.")
Syrian protests in Washington D.C.
(Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr)
On the heels of my intellectual-existential catharsis last week about theology and peacebuilding, I had a conversation with one of my fellow graduate students at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Mohammed, who is Syrian. He's been here in the States since last year and has watched with horror and heartbreak over these recent weeks at the events unfolding in his home country, as Bashar al-Assad's regime violently cracks down on protesters. Mohammed referred to this crack-down as "the mowing machine," a grimly apropos metaphor for the ruthless and bloody attacks on protesters which have left a trail of dead. (To which the protesters have not responded with organized violence, unlike rebels in Libya.)

When Mohammed and I spoke, I was in the midst of reading this article: The Syrian revolution as Gene Sharp sees it (GlobalPost), to which I promptly sent him a link, especially after he spoke so glowingly of the scholar and advocate of nonviolent resistance. Sharp's name also came up earlier this year when our peacebuilding program was discussing the revolution in Egypt, which one of our alumni saw up close and personal. As I read through Sharp's reflections on the situation in Syria, it got me thinking about the connections and departures between strategic nonviolence and Christian pacifism.

Thinking again
Coincidentally, that same day last week, I had read another piece by Erica Chenoweth at Foreign Policy: Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance. In this piece, Chenoweth enumerates through a number of characterizations of nonviolent resistance (which I equate with the term "strategic nonviolence") and assesses their validity. To the statement that "Nonviolent resistance and pacifism are the same thing," Chenoweth sayeth, "False!" She's right but perhaps not in the way she articulates. Chenoweth goes onto characterize pacifism as  "a philosophical position that rejects the use of violence on moral grounds," whereas nonviolent resistance does not claim any "moral high ground" or really any moral position whatsoever. Both points I take issue with.

First of all, Christological pacifism - that is being pacifist because of Christians' participation in/emulation of the nature of Jesus Christ - is not primarily a philosophical position. To use philosophical terms, Christological pacifism is an epistemological and ontological stance; a way of seeking, knowing, and being, that encompasses all of embodied personal and corporate life in the church, not just our intellect (but certainly including that).

Next, to assume that strategic nonviolence is somehow a-moral, claiming no particular morality, is philosophically problematic. Any principled, ordered, and organized path of action - such as strategic nonviolence - entails a morality whether its acknowledged or not. It may be a somewhat secularized morality but that doesn't mean it's not there and functioning.

This guy's Sharp
Since Gene Sharp is a relatively new figure to me, and I haven't had a chance to engage his scholarly work, this article of his is really my first brush with any of his writings. So if anyone knows Sharp well and finds me completely off-base in my comments below, please call me on the carpet; I'd love to learn more through dialogue. With that proviso out of the way, I found in this article some startling resonance with the theopolitical study I've been doing lately. It started here:
Can the (Syrian) people continue until the collapse of the oppression? The question really is how strong are the people? Do they have their own institutions and organizations that have survived despite the regime? Can they form new ones to meet social needs at a local level and focus on increasing the power of nonviolent struggle? (Emphasis mine.)
The questions I've emphasized above are the key. One thing the situation in Syria shows is a nasty habit of the modern nation-state in any of its forms, whether representatively-democratic (US) or despotic (Syria). That nasty habit is this: The oversimplification of social and political space. Pre-modern social and political arrangements in the West were a complex and diffuse web of loyalties to various bodies with varying degrees of influence over/with each other (feudal lord, trade guilds, church, etc.). But with the ascendance of the Modern nation-state (and its symbiote, capital markets), all loyalties - including church affiliations - become subsumed and mediated by the state. Not only that, but the sociality of life gets sucked out; a complex  web of social affiliations becomes an individual's relationship to the state (called "citizenship"). State and Market become the beginning and end - and savior - of life for its citizens. Outside these: "there be dragons."

But Syria shows us that this is a lie, and Sharp is drawing attention to where non-state political space can open up opportunities for nonviolent insurrection, which he argues will always come to better ends than violent revolution. Also, Syrian nonviolent resistance, along the lines that Sharp draws, could teach American social and political activists a thing or two. The American imagination is so captivated by the nation-state, most activists can't think of anything else besides lobbying/influencing government policy, rather than setting up radical political alternatives which complexify political space (see below re: Coles and radical democracy).

Theopolitical connections
Political theology in our increasingly secular age has begun to see this more clearly as well, and it's shown up for me most recently in William T. Cavanaugh's Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. For political theologians, the observation is that, with the crumbling of Christendom in the West (to which Anabaptists say "Huzzah!") and the rise of secular political orders, the church has been pushed from the center to the margins. And not only that, the church has handed over much of what constitutes public life to those powers. Our hearts have stayed warm for Jesus, but our bodies have been handed over to the princes and capital elites. Political theologians are trying to make sense of this but more importantly are offering creative resources for Christians to reclaim their public, corporate body for public witness to the faith. Neo-Anabaptist political theologians (I'm beginning to see myself in that tiny camp) have an interesting place in this developing field, thanks to the influence of John Howard Yoder and his champion, Stanley Hauerwas.

In Cavanaugh's aforementioned book, he offers a great summary of Hauerwas' and Romand Coles' somewhat-recent book, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations Between a Radical Democrat and a Christian. In Cavanaugh's assessment, this conversation sees Hauerwas' political theology coming into its most "public" maturity. By engaging in friendly, substantive discourse with a non-Christian political theorist and community organizer (Coles), Hauerwas has been forced to articulate his anti-liberalism political theology in creative new ways that Cavanaugh thinks will finally get him away from the charges of "sectarianism" that he's been battling for decades.

It's not yet clear to me how a reading of Hauerwas, Coles, and Gene Sharp would enrich discourse between theology and peacebuilding, but I have high hopes. Cavanaugh helps draw attention to where the limits may be (remember, neither Coles nor Sharp are Christian). But were I to pursue further academic work after my masters studies conclude this year, this cast might be low-hanging fruit for such work.

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