Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pacifists are Not Christian

I will be the first to admit; there are many things in the world that I really don't understand. And I say that not out of a some feigned naivete adopted to illustrate absurdity, but rather in the much more literal sense. There are some stances that seem so hypocritical and inconsistent that I really can't see how anyone could rationalize them, or proclaim them with any degree of fervor for that matter. And being somewhat of a self-proclaimed Anarchist (everyone run and hide!), I run into people like this constantly. There's no shortage of people who will sell out their own philosophy on the drop of a hat. But probably the most intriguing group in this paradigm is the liberal-progressive Christian.

As most people know, I really have no quarrel with Christians. In fact, I hold a great deal of sympathy for them and feel, if anything, that they are overly-persecuted in popular culture today. I've known, worked with, and loved many wonderful Christians in my lifetime. So I don't want anyone to be offended by or misunderstand my criticisms here. That being said, I believe there's a wide discrepancy in what they believe and the teachings/philosophy they claim to believe in. I see this discrepancy all the time but it hit me with some real vigor in particular when I was recently browsing some commentary in the IMDB forum of all places. I had been perusing some of the threads discussing the (possibly) upcoming film adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Now, I'm a huge fan of Ayn Rand; not so much for her metaphysical or epistemological beliefs, but for her broader philosophical and socio-political understanding of how things are and should be. That is to say, I may not believe the things she believes for the same reasons, but I am very sympathetic to the implications of her conclusions. For all that we differ, she's certainly a fellow-traveler and has been a huge part of my political inspiration.

What seemed to be taking place on the IMDB forums is that some threads were made to ask and answer pertinent questions regarding the film while others (more than half) seemed to be exclusively argumentative threads hosted by Objectivists (Ayn Rand's philosophy) and their nay-sayers. I was reading through some threads of the latter type, and it kind of surprised me how openly Rand and her philosophy was maligned by self-proclaimed progressive Christians. From what I gathered, they were trying to show the hypocrisy of right-wing/conservative Christians who like Rand. They pointed out the most obvious fact that Rand was an avowed Atheist (of course). But more to the point, they also pointed not only to her disillusion regarding modern-day altruism, but even further to what they perceived to be an obvious product of that stance, her belief that the state should not provide any form of welfare for people in need.

I found some of this commentary to be very interesting but also befuddling. While I'm not a religious person, I would say that I derive my political and philosophical beliefs from my ethics. And, for the purpose of this conversation, I would say that my ethical views are not only largely compatible with but were, in part, actually adopted from Christian morality to a large degree. I was raised in the Catholic Church and went to parochial schools for the better half of my informative early years. So I don't consider myself to be some wayward rogue in the realm of knowledge concerning Christian doctrine. But I would say what really concerned me regarding the direction of these virtual accusations was actually two-fold.

My immediate thought regarding the issue of liberal criticism of conservatives in relation to Christian ethics was that there were certainly better things you could pummel them with, ideologically. In fact, liberal Christians hold some of these criticisms at the forefront of their beliefs. Many progressive Christians oppose various wars and foreign occupations because they cannot ethically conceive giving consent to the loss of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being lost in the conflict. Most of them will openly say that unless we are being directly threatened or are acting in self-defense, then the loss of any human life is unwarranted. And that belief is most certainly in line with the Christian perspective. But then what of the belief that government should provide welfare for the needy? Isn't this perfectly in line with the Christian perspective as well?

The simple answer, and I know many progressive Christians do not want to hear it, is, "No." Let us be clear here. In the initial back and forth taking place on the IMDB thread(s), there were actually two criticisms being made regarding this; one was the direct criticism of the Objectivist belief regarding altruism, but the other was the implication of the product of those beliefs; a lack of support for government welfare and intervention. I don't believe those proffering these criticisms actually thought of these as separate criticisms, as one directly follows the other. But rest assure, although subtle, there is a large difference between the two.

What may be even more subtle, in terms of understanding, however, is the Objectivist belief in the evil of altruism. This, on its face, is probably going to repel any Christian, regardless of political persuasion, and is also probably the most damning argument left-leaning Christians could/should have of Christian Ayn Rand fans. I'm not an expert on Objectivism, but if progressive Christians really understood the intricacies of the Objectivist view regarding altruism, it may not be as damning as it appears at face value...which is considerable. Rand brings to light a misconception regarding altruism, the belief that it simply implies doing good for others. But in reality, this is only true if the act is selfless. Rand refutes this repression of the ego and asserts not only that selfishness is good, but that many acts of so-called altruism are in fact selfish in nature, and as such, are not altruistic at all. For instance, many people do good deeds to be rewarded socially, to feel good about themselves, or to win favor with their deity of choice (to get into heaven, etc.)...even if they don't consciously realize it.

Ironically, Rand is NOT NECESSARILY even against such acts of kindness as they aren't truly altruistic. If it gives someone a sense of personal satisfaction and value to do something for someone, then this is not truly selfless in the Objectivist sense. So in this way, what she was really railing against was the blind obedience to comply with wishes that directly oppose your own interests, values, and beliefs. Her belief seemed to be not only aimed to dissuade religious people from blindly obeying the precept of obedience from their perceived God (which Rand didn't believe in anyways) but to also point out that they weren't even really being selfless in the first place. You can see how this can get philosophically confusing very quickly. But nevertheless, regardless of what you actually believe, you could see how someone would believe that the condemnation of altruism is not compatible with Christian values. In fact, there was even discussion of the tenets of Satanism being largely based on Objectivism. And for anyone who is interested, this is actually true. Of course, the comparison was made to impune Objectivism and essentially scare Christians away from it. But this is beholden more to the fact that Christians are led to believe that Satanism and its belief-system is simply the inverse of Christian values, which isn't true at all. But that's a subject for another post maybe.

But disregarding their first criticism of Objectivism, is the subsequent criticism of the belief that government should not provide welfare valid? I think liberal Christians, although they aren't aware of it, are going to have a much harder time selling this criticism philosophically. Firstly, when talking about any rational action, we are necessarily discussing a means-end framework. And as such we always find ourselves asking the proverbial question; "Do the ends justify the means?" What are our ends here? Christians adhere to the words of Jesus, asking us to sacrifice of ourselves to help others in need. And so, they believe that we should help those in need, be it through various services and/or compensation. Sounds simple enough. Outside of the whole discussion of altruism, I think a good deal of us can agree on that. In fact, I'm on board so far. So what are our "means" to meet this end?

Well, there's the obvious ways in which many of us can voluntarily help by donating our time or money to various organizations to help meet this end. But in the political realm, this doesn't quite hit on the real issue. Up until this point, most of us are in agreement, whether you're conservative, liberal, libertarian, whatever. The real fork in the road is what liberal Christians see as additionally acceptable means to meet these ends; namely, using government to steal or to force people to give their wealth or labor to other groups of people that are perceived to be in need (or possibly well-connected, politically). And I think this is where the disconnect really is for most people.

Liberals don't seem to want to consider the means by which they wish to achieve their goals in this case. And even more to the point, they infer that anyone who opposes the means by which they want to meet their ends, actually opposes the ends themselves. In this case, they see a group of people that does not believe in coercion or stealing to help those in need, infer that such opposition means that they don't wish to help people in need at all, and assert that their unwillingness to help those in need is simply Un-Christian. But is this view fair or even consistent? If they were being honest with themselves, I think they'd be inclined to decline on both accounts.

It's very perplexing and ironic at best. Liberal Christians believe that the ends of ridding the world of terrorists does not morally justify unprovoked wars or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, even if that were a practical way of achieving those ends. And they understandably gawk when they are accused of not being patriotic or not wanting to stop terrorists. So why then is it so hard for them to grasp that being opposed to theft and coercion does not put one in direct opposition to charity? Are both beliefs not based on the same ethical system that derides the initiation of force upon the innocent? I think we can safely say that Jesus would have both wanted us to help the poor and stop people who terrorize and kill the innocent. But in the context of HIS OWN TEACHING, is it really so hard to understand that he would NOT HAVE APPROVED meeting those ends by killing and/or stealing from innocent people? Is it just me, or do right-wing Christians and left-wing Christians, in their own spheres, only seem to be consistent with their own ethical and philosophical views about half the time?

And that is my main point of contention with both groups in all honesty. Sure, you claim to believe whole-heartedly in the words espoused by a great man over 2000 years ago, but do you really live those words in your worldview? Can your political views fit into that moral compass? And if not, are your political views REALLY more in line with that moral standard than the Objectivist view? At its heart, the libertarianism that Rand and her beliefs inspired is ultimately about a form of pacifism; that we should be weary of initiating harm upon others...even if it seems practical. Have we become so detached from the Golden Rule that they are now just the words of some forgotten philosopher, even to those who consider him their God and Savior? What is the atheistic Objectivist to think of modern-day Christian counter-parts; a group of people who cannot even live the word of their own God as well as their detractors? The Objectivist may be confused or baffled by them, but there is certainly one thing he can gather from his experience with them. Christians are certainly not pacifists.

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