Thursday, January 29, 2009

Week 4's book: What About Hitler?

Book: What about Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World, by Robert W. Brimlow

Grade: B-

Disclaimer: This may be an unfair grade, since this is my first venture into the theology of pacifism. I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the practice and philosophy of nonviolence as I’ve worked my way through the ancient and medieval history of the world. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve discovered that my inclination is to write traditional political narratives–and also that I find military history absolutely fascinating. I wouldn’t have expected that. But there it is.

More and more, though, I’m fascinated not so much by the kings and generals who declare war (their motives are usually fairly transparent) but by the armies who fight for them. Why do soldiers march out and die? How do their leaders convince them that this is a good idea? Why do some men and women refuse–and why are they the exception?

So I have a stack of books on pacifism and just war which I’ll be reading, over the course of this year. This was on the top of the stack, and while I found parts of it useful and interesting, overall it was a disappointment for two reasons.

In the first place, Brimlow spends most of the book attempting to debunk the theory of just war, rather than carefully laying out his own position–it’s a very defensive book. If I’d wanted a book about just war, I’d have bought a book about just war. (In fact, I did, and it’s in my stack.)

And second, his conclusion skirts the real issue. OK, if you call your book What About Hitler? you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. (I remember C. S. Lewis writing once about The Well at the World’s End that the biggest problem with the book was that NO book could ever live up to the wonderful title.) But Brimlow’s book wraps up with the assertion that followers of Christ are commanded to “follow Jesus along the path of peace as his faithful disciple,” even though this “will probably lead to our death.” Then he spends pages and pages defending this, on the assumption that his readers will say, “Hey, that can’t be the message of the gospel!”

Well, of course it is, and anyone who’s spent more than a week or so with the New Testament will have figured that out. The reason the Hitler question is vexing is because it doesn’t pose us with the problem of: What if I choose nonviolence, and then die? It poses us the much more complex question of: What if I choose nonviolence, and then others die, six million or more?

Brimlow does point out, usefully, that the “What about Hitler” question, when posed to pacifists, is essentially unfair. The is passage worth quoting in its entirety:

In a very important respect, the Hitler question is a dishonest one, or at the very least misleading. It assumes that Christians and the church have no involvement and no responsibility prior to some arbitrary date in the early 1940s. If the question is asking how a pacifistic church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the Holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favor of forgiveness and reconciliation.

All true. But I’m still left wondering…given that this entity called “the church” did no such thing, what was the responsibility of the individual peacemaker?

This question remains unaddressed. Brimlow does attempt to deal with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his choice to turn away from nonviolence and involve himself in an attempt to assassinate Hitler, but this is one of the most unsatisfying parts of the book–in fact I’m still trying to figure out exactly what he’s getting at.

Well, it’s only the first book on nonviolence in a large stack. Looking forward to discovering more.

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